Delt Delirium: Training Shoulders With Gary Strydom - And Living To Write About It
OK, some people are sick in the head. This, I do know. I have heard of people who often wonder what the local cashier at their bank might taste like when cooked medium-rare. I've also read about people who travel great distances to initiate sex with a fairground attraction they saw on TV the week prior.
But experiences like these would appear normal if you had to endure a workout that felt like being hit with a spiked baseball bat and then attending to the wounds with citric acid. This is the kind of sordid torture that Strydom is prepared to put himself through in order to develop delts the size of Pamela Anderson's prized possessions.
"I suggest training delts by themselves so you can focus 100% of your mental and physical strength to this body part, which, in all honestly, can't be too big," says Strydom. "I like to punish my shoulders to the max. Sometimes I train them for 45 minutes, other times it will take two hours. Delts can take a lot of beating and a lot of volume. To get them to grow, you have to keep going until you cannot put a shaker cup to your mouth."
Indeed. I have been fortunate to train with many of the top IFBB Pros, but none have grown delts to the dimension of Gary Strydom. As long as we are dropping names here, I will tell you that I have trained shoulders with Phil Heath, too, but Gary's beginnings are those that we can relate to. He wasn't genetically gifted with width, but his attention to detail, technique and work-ethic made him a formidable force in the delt department, even now at the tender age of 52.
The tall, charming and imposing physique of Gary Strydom can be described like a fine wine: full bodied, dry and ageless. If there is such a thing as an off-season for all bodybuilders, Strydom didn't receive the memo. Always walking around displaying a visible arterial road map and full muscle bellies, Gary's physique belies his having been born during a time when people were accused of being a witch and then executed if they cured flu symptoms.
Born in 1960, Strydom left his home country of South Africa after serving four years in the military to realize his bodybuilding dreams in the United States. With only $1,000 to his name, he worked his striated gluteus hard outside of the gym to support the monstrosity he was growing inside of the gym. The expatriate quickly snatched attention of the bodybuilding world by taking victory at the 1983 Junior Florida titles and then winning his class at the USA's one year later.
One week prior to the 1986 National titles, his citizenship was delivered to his door, giving him clearance to compete and potentially qualify for his IFBB Pro Card - a dream he pictured every time he fought through every failing rep. That dream came true, and a new life emerged as he notched a slew of professional wins, and cheers from crowds that would make Tom Jones green with envy.
One of his standout body parts that blew his competition to the outer perimeters of the contest stage were his sick shoulders. When in contest shape, they resembled a bunch of shrink-wrapped bananas protruding from his titanic traps, draping down to his outrageous arms.
The winner of six professional shows, Gary to this day trains late at night to avoid the crowds of Gold's gym in Venice, for fast transitions between machines and to be sure that he had an adequate fuel surplus though the day to charge his workouts with intensity and intention.
On a late March evening in 2006, I received a text from Gary telling me that we would be training shoulders at 11 p.m. Location: Gold Gym, Venice. An hour prior to working out, Gary likes to eat a chicken breasts, a large portion of rice and broccoli. As expected, Gary is a big eater, but I have never seen anyone eat as many chicken breasts as the 280-pound behemoth. In fact, if you own a chicken run, I encourage you to check on "Gobbles," as you may only find some feathers and feet ... and then Gary.
Strydom's late-night workout allows the South African to eat enough fuel throughout the day so he can power his way through a training session of volume, intensity and convulsing involuntary screams. When Gary shows up in his brand new BMW to the darkened and empty Gold's parking lot, he is surprisingly relaxed and joyous. Strydom has been at the top of his game for more than 30 years, and he knows exactly what is required to compete against the professionals of the 21st century, some almost half his age.
So, you want to unlock the pros secrets to a pair of daunting delts? Well, Bodybuilding.com readers, I hold the key that will require you to turn sideways, due to your newfound ungodly width, as I lead you through the barn door of delt-destroying techniques.
When we approach the first exercise, the Hammer Strength shoulder press, a switch flicks and I am introduced to an entirely different beast, one that is as serious as a heart attack and ready for another mental battle in order to win the physical and psychological war. On this occasion, and any other when training with bodybuilding royalty, I find myself settled into the zone of 200 heartbeats per minute.
Gary has been one of my bodybuilding heroes for 20 years, so, comfortably, I wrench an extra rep or two thanks to the adrenaline that accompanies a fabricated bellow of "One more f-ing rep," from Strydom.
In order to take away much of the resistance from the front deltoid and onto the outer delt, Strydom places a 5-inch-thick pad to the back support, allowing the body to be shifted forward for better isolation. Gary is also careful to instruct that at no time should I lock out my elbows, which, in turn, would allow my shoulders to rest.
Around 12 repetitions are targeted and mustered on every pyramiding set, even the heaviest. A 20-pound plate is stacked onto both sides of the machine until Gary has found his two closest friends: punishment and pain. A muscle-feasting hamper of 360 pounds hung off the bar, and Strydom's nostrils began to flare so he could accommodate his purposely exaggerated breaths.
"I'm a warrior ready for war," screamed Strydom as he spat out 12 reps. When the machine came to a shuddering halt, Strydom's eyes pierced through mine as if to say, "Your turn."
Pinning back my ears and glaring at the apparatus, I marched forward and took position. Strydom began taunting me with barks of "Can you hang with me?" and "Are you sure you can do this?" "Yep, yep, ahhh," I exhaled as I began my wage of war to nine repetitions. I felt my outer delts isolate themselves from the rest of the shoulder's anatomy as Gary told me to pull my elbows back and work the negative after a second pause at the top. As I screamed through my ninth and final rep, deltoid obliteration had been accomplished.
A smile gleamed across Gary's face. To him, a voodoo preacher of pain, putting pins in the weight stack was like impaling a rag doll.
We didn't have to go too far for the next exercise because it was on the same machine. Only this time we would be working one blood-gorged delt at a time. "This time we will push the elbows forward so we can hit the front delt a little more," instructed Strydom.
Following three warm-ups, the savage fulfilled his thoughts with rage and raised the bar with focus and purpose, and without the slightest fear of the four plates that were trying to weigh him down. His body fed off adrenaline, and his shattering power increased the more reps he completed. The massacre finished when 12 reps ended with an eruption.
I caught myself freeze for a moment as I bared witness to the four following sets unfold. It was a sight that I was not only witness to, but a part of. It felt surreal, mainly because the blood had rushed from my head to my delts. But reality soon set in as I felt myself excreting a lung in an effort to manage the last set of 12 terrifying reps that left my delts twitching and disturbed.
As Strydom stripped off for my trusty Canon, you could almost taste the blood that had coursing through his shoulders, hear the muscle fibers sobbing in despair. The shrink-wrapped sinew was stretched to bursting point, a scene that not many had witnessed or really experienced.
Casting an immeasurable shadow, Strydom led the way to the second room of Gold's, where we homed in to our third exercise. "This is a thinking man's game," said Strydom. "I have to know what exercises to incorporate for certain lengths of my training cycle in order to constantly evolve. It's much more important for me to structure my training as opposed to just lifting heavy weight," he continued, before pulling the entire cable weight stack for single-arm rear-pulley raises.
Once his warm-up was complete, he bent over, arched his back, and placed his left forearm onto his left thigh for support. "One punch is all I need to take you out," hollered the 6-foot-1 mammoth. His seemingly skinless fibrous shoulder tissue twitched and began the tiring journey to 16 reps.
Veins bulged and snaked his physique in an attempt to asphyxiate him, hoping to make the pain subside. Strydom's old-school determination was having none of it. He walked away following four sets, proud and always dominating the standoff of man against machine.
Delt Exercise Details
- Military Hammer Press: 3 warm-up sets, 5 working sets of 12 reps
- Single Arm Military Hammer Press: 2 warm-up sets, 5 working sets of 12 reps
- Single Arm Rear Cable Raises: 1 warm-up set, 5 working sets of 16 reps
- Machine Shrugs: 2 warm-up sets, 5 working sets of 18 reps
I observed Gary's physique as he placed on his lifting straps. I nodded and acknowledged that the formation standing before me looked more like a hugely morphed male physique model than an animated mass monster that one would be accustomed to witnessing at Strydom's size.
His skin appeared clean, clear, tight and refreshed, much like that of a teenage bodybuilder. But Gary still has what many bodybuilders his junior is lacking, and that is the mature grainy appearance that has rarely been evident with the exception of Branch Warren and Dorian Yates.
"My secrets to obtaining and maintaining my hard, grainy and dense muscle is a result of several rituals I like to practice," smiled Gary. "First of all, I train flat. When the pump has gone from the muscle, many people stop. I train through it and past it. I don't get heavy in the offseason because I don't want to overstretch my skin and lose its elasticity.
I also diet over an extended amount of time, maybe 6-to-8 months so I can remove all of my subcutaneous fat and intramuscular fat, and this leaves nowhere for water to hide. Last, I keep it simple. I eat the same foods every day of the year. You will see me even eat the same foods the day before a show. Nothing changes, man. It's the same day in, day out."
Nothing changes, including his obsessive search for the perfect delts. He glanced at the clock, which read midnight, and cut the conversation short. "Let's throw some plates on the shrug machine," shrugged (pun intended) Gary. His solid backbone hoisted the machine; the mirror reflected his beastly visage back at him, and his silhouette began to spread as he began his strong finish.
As Strydom shrugged, he pulled his elbows up for a further contraction, and partly back to hit the posterior portion of his traps. At the count of 18 reps, his corruption and torment was complete, for the time being.
Now, it was my turn to endure the same. During the following four sets, our perspiration clouded the mirror, but my reflection on that evening is as clear as my intentions: to proudly own a pair of shoulders that makes the statement "Wide Load."
As a devoted bodybuilding enthusiast washed with a hint of obsession, I may never clear Cambodia of landmines, and I won't keep my promise to learn how to play bass guitar. Hell, I doubt I'll ever go farther than singing into my hairbrush, let alone be a front man of the band I have often dreamt of. But give me this much: I have trained with a 52-year-old legend who could still wipe the floor with the majority of today's top-tiered pros.
And lived to tell the tale.
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