Five years ago, Adam Smith was heading down the wrong road of life. At 6-3 (190 cm) and a “sopping wet” 140 lbs (63 kg), Adam had severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine) which caused a serious curvature to his upper back, hips that looked displaced slightly to the right, and the most pronounced rounding of the shoulders I’ve ever seen. Mix in a 6 1/2 inch (16,5 cm) wrist, 39 inch (99 cm) inseam and 36 inch (91,5 cm) sleeve (top of the shoulder joint to middle finger), and you’ve got some radical genetics.
Due to his physical stature and stage of maturity (18 years old) Adam, to put it mildly, lacked self- confidence. Since he felt he couldn’t “cut it” with the mainstream of the high school crowd, he got involved with people who were rebellious against society. Adam not only let his personal hygiene go bad (seldom washed clothes, rarely had a shower, and never a haircut), but got into drugs to hide from who he was.
After getting into serious trouble with the law, Adam’s father (a local businessman) bought him one month of training sessions with me (12 workouts). It was the start of a metamorphosis, and for me, the discovery of a common-sense (but non-traditional) twist on basic barbell movements that can help the tall hard gainer in particular to achieve maximum strength and size.
THE RADICAL APPROACH
To say the first workout was a struggle is a huge understatement. Not only was I dealing with the worst genetics I’d ever seen, but an attitude to match.
Using an empty bar, Adam tried to approximate the three powerlifts. With the bar (25 lbs / 11 kg) setting on pins in the rack set at the height where it would be on the floor if loaded with 45-lb (20 kg) plates, he attempted a sumo-style deadlift. Due to his limiting genetics and overall weakness, his lower and upper back resembled a half- closed penknife. He had the worst rounding of the low back I’ve ever seen. The same was true for his squat when he tried to reach parallel. Throughout both lifts he complained of pain in his upper and lower back. His bench press was the most contorted thing I’ve ever seen. Once the bar passed below a point 4 inches (10 cm) above chest height, he experienced severe rounding of his upper back (internal rotation of the shoulders), causing his chest to cave in, and he was in pain again.
At this point, whatever patience and faith (in me, and weight training) that Adam had, was fading fast. I had to come up with a solution immediately. It came to me out of a seemingly naive question, from someone not clouded by conventional training thought.
After Adam’s fist attempt at bench pressing, he posed this question: “Why do I have to lower the bar all the way to my chest?” Being a big advocator of using the rack to do partial reps (for advanced men only, to this point) I knew you didn’t have to lower the bar all the way to the chest to build powerful pecs, tris or delts. Since Adam wasn’t interested in powerlifting competition (where the bar has to be lowered all the way to the chest, for instance), and since he had no pain at a point 4 inches above his chest, and could maintain good torso position to this point, I decided he didn’t have to lower the bar all the way. What a simple answer to a seemingly complex problem.
I took Adam through the basic exercises and made adjustments according to what his genetics would allow. Instead of trying to force his body into doing something that it wasn’t capable of doing (yet), I decided to focus on what his specific biomechanics would allow him to do. In other words, why should I put his poor levers in a position of extremely poor leverage? Instead, I believe it is most important, especially for someone who is genetically challenged, to be put in a position to generate the best leverage possible. (Please read that again.) With this philosophy in hand, I drew up his first successful weight training program.
Remember that Adam was a beginner with no previous weight training experience. So what you are about to see might confuse you, because, on the surface, it appears to go against a basic rule (that partial reps are only for advanced men) which has appeared in HARDGAINER over the years. But, examine my application of this training method, the reasons why I chose it, and the great results it produced. Then you will see it actually follows the basic HARDGAINER philosophy of doing what your genetics allow you to do as safely and as intensively as possible. Here was Adam’s first program:
1. Rack squat
Each rep started off pins set at 3 inches (7,6 cm) above parallel. A very wide stance with toes turned out at 60 degrees from forward was used. At this depth he maintained good torso position, with a flat low back. Most importantly, he was pain free.
2. Rack bench
Each rep started off pins set at 4 inches (10 cm) above the chest; about 27 inches (68,6 cm) between thumbs.
3. Single-arm dumbbell row
Each rep was performed with a one-second pause at the top, not only to help strengthen the muscles of the upper back, but to help correct the severe inward rounding of his torso. This helped Adam to retract and depress his scapula (pinch his shoulder blades together), which is very important for proper bench press positioning.
4. Heavy side bend
Included for lateral strength and to help his poor posture from the scoliosis.
1. Seated rack shoulder press
Each rep was started off the pins set at the top of his head. At any point lower than this, Adam experienced pain in his shoulders and upper back.
Each rep was started off the pins set so that the bar wouldn’t extend too far down. This prevented his shoulders from being pulled too far forward because, due to the scoliosis, this caused him pain.
3. Seated hammer curl
This was done seated, to take the pressure off his back. I used the hammer curl because it hurt his shoulder to supinate his hand under load.
4. Seated twist
Manual resistance was provided here. This exercise helped with the scoliosis. I will explain the technique later on.
1. Rack deadlift
Each rep was started off pins set at 4 inches (10 cm) higher than where the bar would be if loaded with 45-lb (20 kg) plates and resting on the floor. At this level, he could maintain proper torso and low back position.
2. Close-grip bench press
Each rep was started off pins set 4 inches (10 cm) above the chest, for the same reasons as with the regular bench press; 12 inches (30,5 cm) between thumbs.
3. Weighted crunch
All exercises were performed for five sets of five reps. Two or three warm-up sets and two or three “live” set were done in each case. I believe there is no magic rep range. What matters is doing what you enjoy, doing what is safe (to promote consistency), and making the bar “grow”.
Adam started with comfortable weights and built up slowly, adding a little weight weekly to each exercise. He loved this, because he knew it was just a matter of time till the bar would get “big” and so would he. The weights got challenging at the 8-10 week mark, and I slowed his progression at this point. I think many trainees get to this point and then back off too soon. When the weights get tough is when you need to pull out the little discs, get tough yourself, and keep progressing.
The 5 x 5 format was used on all exercises (except twists at the start of the program), including abdominal work. No, that’s not a misprint, ab work. You may have questions concerning the practice of using low reps for ab work (I use them successfully on calf work too), because, once again, it goes against conventional thinking. I will address this practice in a future article.
THE PARTIAL REP
A partial rep is relative to what has come to be known as the conventional rep. Examples of conventional reps include a squat to parallel or below, deadlift off the floor at the predetermined height of a 45-lb barbell plate, bench press to the chest, etc. Who got to determine what is “conventional” and hence, what is “partial” anyway? Let me elaborate.
When I deadlift off the floor (conventional style) at my height of 5-10 (178 cm), the distance to move the barbell to an erect position is much shorter than a man’s of 6-3 (190 cm). (The difference between my pulling distance, and Adam’s, is 4 inches (10 cm).) So, starting the deadlift about 4 inches (10 cm) off the ground is not a “partial” for Adam, but, rather, a full range of motion relative to the safe and effective positioning that his biomechanics allow.
When Adam starts his bench press from 4 inches (10 cm) above his chest, the distance to lockout is exactly the same as mine from chest to lockout. This philosophy also holds true for the other basic movements. So, if he is physically moving the barbell as far as it can go while maintaining good biomechanics for each lift, then it is a full range of motion for that individual. So, instead of the term “partial reps” I prefer the term “modified reps.” Using these he can maintain much better biomechanics throughout the lift.
For the deadlift, he will be able to keep his torso more erect, allowing him to use his legs more efficiently, with less compression and extension of his vertebrae. Compare this to having to pick the weight off the floor with a weak back to begin with, by rounding the lower back, a premature “pulling out” of the legs and hips, all of which will seriously compromise the health of the lower back musculature and spine.
The same holds true for the squat. Using modified reps helps to develop proper exercise form, greatly reduces the risk of injury, and makes it possible to achieve strength and size that could not be possible (for the genetically disadvantaged) using conventional ranges of motion. This spares having to use time and energy just trying to maintain what may be an “impossible to achieve” biomechanical position in the first place, and with such a small weight that you have little chance to stimulate strength gains, let alone stay motivated.
Using “modifieds” will help to develop a raw foundation of brute strength. This can then be applied to develop the skill necessary (if desired) to put the body back in a position of unfavorable leverage to move the barbell through a conventional range of motion.
At this point I want to stress that if you are a beginning weight trainee, and can perform an exercise using a conventional range of motion, with proper biomechanics, you should wait to use modified reps until you can strictly bench press at least 200 lbs (90 kg), squat 300 lbs (136 kg) and deadlift 350 lbs (158 kg).
THE RADICAL SCOLIOSIS
Scoliosis is basically a condition in which the spine has abnormal (lateral) curves at one or several positions throughout its length. There are two types of scoliosis-structural and functional. Structural scoliosis is an irreversible lateral curvature that can only be corrected with surgery. Functional scoliosis is usually reversible by strengthening the muscles that control its movement, and by applying functional skill development training. Adam’s scoliosis was functional, so we set out to strengthen all the muscles that control every possible plane of its movement. By developing the strength of these muscles, and by consciously working to maintain good posture at all times, Adam could improve his condition. You see, it’s not good enough just to have greatly increased strength. You have to teach the body to use it-by practicing the specific skill you want it applied to.
The deadlift took care of most of the large musculature of the upper and lower back (spinal erectors). The dumbbell row was for the upper back (scapula rotators, trapezius, rhomboids, and latissimus dorsi). Weighted crunches for the abs gave strength and stability to the front of the body. But I feel that outside of these great overall movements, two other exercises had a huge impact on his dealing with the scoliosis. These are the side bend and the seated twist.
The side bend works the obliques (for lateral stability), and the intrinsic muscles in the low back (intertransversales and longissimus groups) which are responsible for side-to-side movement of the spine.
The seated twist helps strengthen the small muscles that connect the vertebrae to each another (including the rotatores and multifidus). We performed these with Adam seated on a bench, sitting as “tall” as possible while I applied resistance at his shoulders. I would, for example, have him twist his torso slowly (it has to be slow) to the right while I applied resistance to his left shoulder. We did this for 15-20 reps each side. This had a tremendous impact on decreasing the pain he was experiencing at various points throughout his spinal column.
THE RADICAL RESULTS
After four years of training with me (his father paid for the first four months, then Adam got a part-time job to pay my personal coaching fee) Adam gained exactly 62 lbs (28 kg). He could rack bench press (4 inches (10 cm) above the chest) 250 lbs (113 kg) for 3 reps, rack squat (3 inches (7,6 cm) above parallel) 350 lbs (158 kg), and rack deadlift (4 inches (10 cm) above the conventional bar position) an astounding 400 lbs (181 kg). When he went back to see his doctor (the one who told him not to lift) to check on his scoliosis, to say the doc was shocked is an understatement. Adam added so much muscle to his back you couldn’t even see the spinous processes of his spine (the bony parts that stick out).
Over the next year or so Adam continued to train, but on his own, with consultation from me. We have slowly worked his movements to the conventional ranges of motion (his decision, as I would have stayed with “modifieds”). This was done by slowly increasing his range of motion by progressively, over time, lowering the pins in the rack by half inch (1,3 cm) increments. I designed a special rack that allows 1 inch (2,5 cm) changes, and we used rubber mats to achieve the half inch (1,3 cm) changes. This rack also enabled very wide sumo-style deadlifts to be done in it, and is available through Wells Equipment Fabrication (317-326-4168).
Through a slow application of this method, he has hit the 390-lb (176 kg) squat mark, 415 (188 kg) deadlift, and 260 (118 kg) bench. All of these lifts were done through the conventional range of motion. He also added another 10 lbs (4,5 kg) of muscle during this fifth year of his training.
Adam will finish his degree in criminology next semester, and plans to enter the Police Academy after graduation. He has traded in his dagger earring for a barbell earring, he showers at least once a day now, and is engaged to get married.
It’s amazing how using a “simple” program, tons of effort, and a little common sense to adapt the exercise to the “genetic levers” of the trainee, not only can transform one’s physique but can change an entire life.
Adam is truly a man of strength.