By Scott Hays
Seems perfectly reasonable. You go to the gym, you expect results. Otherwise, why bother? And yet, some of us haven’t seen an increase in muscle size or a loss of body fat since we first figured out the difference between a barbell and a dumbbell. Either we’ve peaked, burned out, given up – or we’re lying to ourselves about how hard and often we train.
Designing the perfect workout for maximum results isn’t so much a straight line as a series of advances and retreats. Sometimes we reach our goals; sometimes we don’t. When the latter applies to you, it’s time to make some adjustments.
We asked personal trainer John Carrido of Carrido Integrated Fitness in Newport Beach, California, to offer solutions to eight of the most common problems men encounter in their training programs. Carrido, a former amateur bodybuilder champion and avid athlete, says there’s one rule you should never forget when trying to fiddle with destiny: “What works for the guy next to you may not work for you.”
I’ve been in pretty good shape most of my adult life. But lately, my body seems to be getting weaker, even though I’ve been training like a madman. What’s going on?
“More is not always better,” Carrido says. “Sometimes you have to slow down and regroup – change your routine.” For example, instead of doing 30 minutes on the stairclimber, try 45 minutes on the treadmill. Instead of three sets of lat pulldowns, try three sets of seated rows. Also make sure you’re eating enough and in the proper proportions (15 to 20 percent protein, 15 percent fat, 5 to 10 percent simple carbs, 55 percent complex carbs). “Most people who overtrain don’t consume enough calories to keep their bodies sufficiently fueled for the added stress,” Carrido adds.
I just want to get big. I work out four days a week, I do all the exercises I see in the magazines, and I eat like a pig. How come I’m not getting bigger?
First make sure you’re setting realistic goals for your body type. Carrido says. Some guys can easily put on muscle mass while others have to struggle. If you’ve been working out hard and eating, as you say, like a pig, you should be getting stronger. Maybe you’re just not gaining the size. It takes time. Give yourself the best chance to grow by doing proven mass-building exercises like bench presses, squats and deadlifts. Figure out how many calories you’re consuming and how many you’re expending. Carrido suggest increasing your daily caloric intake, but only slightly. You want to gradually gain the right kind of weight. Also, lift the heaviest weight you can on each exercise, using proper technique, for eight to 10 repetitions. Go to failure – meaning you can’t squeeze out another rep – every set.
I’m getting older, and my chest muscles are starting to sag, even though I still have fairly low body fat. What can I do to firm up those flaccid pecs?
Your pectoral muscles typically don’t get much use during day-to-day life, so if you want to hold up what gravity pulls down, your best strategy is to make sure you work the entire muscle in the gym. Most guys work the middle and upper fibers with flat and incline bench presses and flyes, but few take the trouble to tone the lower third of the muscle.
Carrido recommends the decline bench press and cable crossover. “Both exercises shape and define your lower pecs,” he says, “but only if you concentrate on really flexing those muscles as you finish the movement.”
I play basketball and find myself continually out-rebounded because I can’t jump worth a spit. Are there any exercises I can do to improve my vertical leap?
Vertical-leaping ability can be slightly improved, even though it’s mostly determined by that cruelest of all masters, your genetic code. Exercises that strengthen your leg muscles – calves, quadriceps (front thighs) and hamstrings (rear thighs) – can help. “We’re talking squats, leg presses, leg curls and calf raises,” says Carrido, who started at guard for Orange Coast College when it won the 1979 California state junior college basketball championship.
To increase your vertical leap by four to six inches, Carrido recommends the following routine every other day: With a barbell on your shoulders, step up and then down on a 10- to 12-inch-high block of wood, as if you’re climbing a flight of stairs. Go until you’re tired. Place the barbell down and jump over the block of wood from side to side with both feet for 30 seconds. Rest, repeat, then jump straight up toward the ceiling for 30 seconds, as if you’re outrebounding your opponent.
I love to play golf, but my game sucks. What exercise can I do to increase my back strength and improve my flexibility?
You’ve got to strengthen your abdominal and hamstring muscles if you want to be a golfer, says Carrido, who in less than three years became a single-digit handicapper. The best exercise for your hamstring is the leg curl. “Most people ignore this exercise, and they shouldn’t,” Carrido adds. “A strong set of hamstring muscles helps keep your pelvis and abdominal muscles in proper alignment.”
How can I gain control over the body part that gives me the most fits – my oblique muscles?
It’s been said countless times, but it’s worth repeating: You can’t spot-reduce. The good news, however, is that the fat at the sides of your waist – your love handles – is often the first to disappear when you take up a regular cardiovascular program and cut the fat from your diet.
But that’s not the only strategy you can employ. Carrido also recommends building other body parts to give the appearance of having a smaller waist. For example, if you build your lats – the large, fan-shaped mid-back muscles – you can develop a V-shape, which makes your waist appear smaller. Wide-grip pull-downs and wide-grip seated rows are both great lat-isolation exercises.
I hear that building muscles helps the body burn fat, but I’ve been working out hard for years and I’ve lost none at all, although I have gotten bigger and stronger. What am I doing wrong?
Before you start any fitness program, get a body-composition analysis from your doctor or a qualified trainer. If you know what percentage of your body mass is fat, you can somewhat accurately measure the results of your training and nutrition program. If your goal is to get leaner but your ratio of lean mass hasn’t changed, you need to make adjustments in your program. But are you sure you haven’t lost any fat? Let’s say, for example, that after training for five years you’ve gained 24 pounds – 20 pounds of muscle and four pounds of fat. Yes, you’ve gained some fat, but your body-fat percentage has decreased.
Some men, Carrido says, get so focused on losing fat that they radically cut calories. This costs them more muscle tissue than fat, and their body fat percentage actually increases. But it sounds like you’re very close to your goals, and that’s when your body resists you most. It never wants to lose those last few pounds or that final inch. Carrido’s advice is to keep your focus and discipline. It’ll probably take more time and more intensity, and you may decide it’s not worth it. If so, be satisfied that you improved as much as you did.
I’ve noticed that most people have one muscle group that’s harder to train than the others. For me, it’s my biceps. How can I turn my weaker points into personal strengths?
Carrido likes to set up what he calls “priority training.” In other words, identify your weaker muscle groups and work them first. For example, if your arms increase in size rather quickly but your chest still sags, do bench presses and dumbbell flyes first. And keep your body properly proportioned by working every muscle group. “People don’t realize you need to balance your muscle groups or you’ll tend to get injured,” he explains. “For example, weak abdominal muscles may cause lower-back problems. Each opposing muscle group must be strengthened for balance.”
John Carrido is available for consultation by calling Core FIT at 949.645-6463.