Ed Ryan's Gym is an off-the-grid dungeon below the streets of Glenolden, PA. It's the definition of a hole in the wall, but it's the only place in the world Frank "Wrath" McGrath wanted to be on this particular day.
It was freezing cold outside, the kind of day where it's hard to move and even harder to get motivated. Wrath knew this wouldn't be easy, but luckily, many had gone before him.
"This place is just meant to do work," he says. "Looking on the wall, you see the pictures and can think about all the great bodybuilders that have trained here. I think in my head when I pick up something, 'These guys have touched the same dumbbells.' I'm keeping this thing alive—this old-school bodybuilding."
There is a sense of daring elemental to this sort of training—leaving the comfort zones of cozy gyms and pre-ordained training protocols. So be warned: The numbers in the workout only tell a fraction of the story. Instead of counting reps, you'll need to trust yourself, and trust the iron, and its timeless ability to forge freaks out of regular dudes.
That's Wrath's time-tested approach. That's old school. That's Animal.
Note: Sets and reps are approximate. Pick a weight you can handle for at least 8-10 reps, and keep racking up the volume until you're done.
Wrath's Technique Keys
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
"I usually try to do at least two variations of side laterals in my shoulder workouts," Wrath says. "It can be dumbbells, machines, or cables, just to hit them from different angles. The meat and potatoes of my shoulder workouts are presses and laterals. I'll do two versions of each in every shoulder workout. Everything else is just fine-tuning—rear delts and front delts and stuff like that."
Machine Shoulder Press
"In this gym, I could have done regular barbell presses, dumbbell presses, or Arnold presses, but I picked something I'm not used to doing and that I don't see very often," Wrath says of the unique Universal station he selected. "I don't like training at a lot of the newer gyms that have new equipment. I just don't feel it as much. A lot of the older equipment just has a better feel to it when you do it."
Plate Front Raise
"I was just walking around the gym, and I saw that plate there. It was a really cool-looking plate, and I just picked it up and said, 'OK, I'll do front raises with this,'" he recalls. Gripping the "deep dish" 45-pound plate—a prized collector's item from a bygone era— Wrath raised it to eye level over and over again, with some sets exceeding 30 repetitions. "The first set, I was like, 'This is kinda hard.' Then toward the end, I started to wake up."
The moral for you: If you're really feeling a movement, give yourself the time to enjoy it.
Again, Wrath could have opted for free weights here. But one of the joys of training in an old-school gym is the wealth of unique machines that haunt them. The Universal bench-press station Wrath selected was older than him, and had helped build countless imposing upper bodies over the decades. How could he resist?
"I was walking over toward the machine to do shrugs, and I saw this machine that I've used to do bench presses before," he says. "I said, 'I guess I'll do shrugs on it today. It's got a nice heavy stack.'" Simple as that.
The lesson: Don't overthink your implements. They'll all work if you're up to the challenge of making them do so.
Single-Arm Dumbbell Lateral Raise With Lean
"I wasn't planning on doing side laterals, but as I was walking over, it just popped in my head, just to make it a bit more challenging, and to do another variation of side laterals," Wrath says. That's a crucial part of his training philosophy: Make things harder. For instance, not sure machine shrugs will be tough enough to get your attention? There are ways to make them more intense, if you're brave enough.
It's Up to You
If you're looking to abandon the safety net of sets and reps and begin training by feel, don't expect it to be easy at first. Some movements will feel great, while others will feel disappointing. You'll make bad choices, and good ones. The key, Wrath says, is to keep moving forward.
"I've never written down a program and said, 'This is exactly what I have to do.' I've never had a list, and I've always gone by how I feel," he says. "Some days, if I do one exercise and feel like I didn't give it my all, I'll choose the next exercise to torture myself. If I'm doing shoulder presses and can't do my regular weight, I mad at myself, and the next exercise, I'll do a crazy amount of reps and triple dropsets—anything to make up for the lack of strength or reps in the last exercise."
Holding yourself to a higher standard—that's what this style of training is all about. But get it right, and you'll be in good company.