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Randy and I were both six weeks out from the New England Bodybuilding Championships. As if he wasn't discouraged enough about his chances, I was leaning toward dropping down into lightheavyweights, the same weight class he would be in. Though I have technically been competing as a heavyweight for the past three years, a more fitting class for me would be known as 'barely heavyweight.'
In contest condition, I had only weighed in at various times between 201 and 203 pounds, when the limit for the class was all the way up to 225. This meant that usually I was one of the smaller guys in my class. The only guys who ever made me look huge were the ones who probably should have been basketball players, but for some reason got it in their heads, perched atop tall bodies with gangly limbs, that they would make good bodybuilders.
Either that or they tried basketball and sucked at it. Needless to say, building a thickly muscled physique is a losing battle for very tall men, just as Lee Priest would have been foolish to think that at a very stocky 5-4, he belonged on the NBA courts with LeBron and Kobe. I suppose he could have, too - as the leprechaun mascot for the Boston Celtics. Just jokes, Lee, just jokes!
So anyway, dropping down to 198 and a quarter wasn't going to be too difficult for me. I used to note sarcastically that as a heavyweight, I was never more than a couple missed meals and a healthy bowel movement away from light-heavies. But it was true. Of course, this did not sit well with Randy. Now I was one more person he couldn't beat, as far as he was concerned. "Kid, if you're worried about me, you really have problems,"
I said. "There's one guy in our class I know of who already won his class at the Junior Nationals a couple years ago and is using our show as a warm-up to win it again. He's only five-four and a lightheavyweight, for God's sake - a freaking fire hydrant. You have to stop losing sleep over who else is going to be in the show. There will be some very good competitors, but you just worry about you."
"I am worried, I can't help it," Randy said glumly as he hit a side chest pose in the gym's mirror and shook his head in disgust. It was back day, and we were just starting out with pull-ups, parallel grip. I jumped up first and knocked out twelve. My weight was around 215. Randy was down to 195. He grimly got his grip on the bar and pulled himself up eight times, struggling on the last one.
I scowled to myself, knowing he was punking out, and walked up to the front desk to ask for the leather belt with the chains on either end that allows you to add weight for chins or dips. Why must it be kept back there? Apparently the gym owner is concerned that there are guys who would love to steal it, so they could hang objects from their waists and do weighted chins at the local park from the monkey bars. Or perhaps that it would make a dandy accessory to an S & M outfit. Not that I haven't given it some thought. The chins in the park, I mean.
"What are you doing?" Randy asked as I returned with the belt, merrily swinging a chain from one end as if I were a Hell's Angel about to jump into a rumble with some Satan's Fairies, or some other rival biker gang with an ironic name.
"We're adding weight, silly, what does it look like?" I fetched a 25-pound plate and leaned it against the base of the cable crossover/chin station, then threw the belt at his feet with a jingle of steel. Randy looked aghast.
"Are you serious? Dude, I'm dieting!" Oh boy, I thought. Here we go.
Nearly all bodybuilders have it in their heads that as they diet down for a contest and lose bodyfat, they are bound to lose strength. The logic is that with the increased cardio and decrease in complex carbs and overall calories, there simply isn't enough fuel to move the same type of weights you do in the off-season. Not that there isn't something to that, but I have a different way of looking at it.
If you are dieting correctly and providing just the right amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, you should be able to maintain your muscle mass - assuming you keep training heavy. Training lighter is a mistake I made in the past with disastrous results.
In the spring of 2003 I took the easy way out while preparing for two shows I was doing. I switched from a solid mix of free weights and machines to using mostly machines and cables. And if I am to be honest, I don't think even then I was training as heavy as I could have. I also killed myself with up to an hour and a half of very intense interval style cardio every day in the final six or seven weeks.
The result was that at the second show, I weighed in at 197 pounds. I nearly fainted at the weigh-ins that time, because I hadn't been under 200 pounds in eight years. Or maybe I nearly fainted from the stench of all the Pro-Tan and farts around me from my fellow bodybuilders - all of whom were fully carbed up and producing roughly a metric ton of methane gas each.
In any case, I looked like crap at the show and failed to make the top five, the first time in ten years. I still tell people that wasn't me that year, just a skinny look-a-like out to sully my good name.
Back to my new theory, formed after that shameful incident where I lost enough muscle mass to feed a family of four for a week. If you can indeed maintain your muscle mass while dieting, you should still be able to handle the same weights as in the off-season, or at least close to it. Think about it.
Bodyfat doesn't make you stronger, so why would losing it make you any weaker? IFBB pro Art Atwood told me he actually gets stronger when he diets, because he is so much more focused on his training. And we can't leave Ronnie Coleman out of this discussion.
In his famous training video, "The Unbelievable," Ronnie is five weeks out from the 2001 Mr. Olympia and dieted down in very close to contest condition, yet moves some ridiculous weights. Some of his lifts are an 800-pound deadlift, 600-pound front squats, and 200-pound dumbbell flat and incline presses.
Ronnie obviously doesn't drop his basic, heavy free weight exercises and switch to machines and cables for higher reps when it's time to get ripped and compete, and as a result, he is in a league of his own when it comes to freaky muscular development. Never before has there been a Mr. Olympia so dominant that all of his opponents consider him unbeatable and are resigned to the fact that they don't have a snowball's chance in Hell of winning until he retires.
With all that in mind, I turned to Randy.
"You have dropped over fifteen pounds of fat from your body, correct?"
"So why are you doing worse on pull-ups, ya knucklehead? You have less weight to pull up!"
"Wah, wah, wah!" I jeered. "It's all in your head. You think you should be getting weaker, so you are. If you haven't noticed, I have been getting stronger on a lot of things."
"I guess, I mean we haven't been able to train together too often."
"Take my word for it. Pull-ups are something you should always get better at when you drop some pounds of bodyfat." With that, I strapped on the twenty-five I had meant for him to use and knocked out another twelve reps. I slid the belt off my hips and pointed to it.
"You're up. I want to see at least eight reps." Randy looked at me like I was crazy, which I suppose I could be, by strict medical definition, but then paused. Something seemed to click in his head. I saw his face change in an instant, and I knew that he 'got it.' A determined grimace replaced the hapless pout, and he strapped himself onto the handles, then kicked away the milk carton we used to stand on.
"Light weight!" he shouted, and several nearby members turned in curiosity. That was Ronnie Coleman's catchphrase that he used to motivate himself before each set, but the soccer moms and retired men of my gym wouldn't know Ronnie Coleman from Ron Harris. In fact, one time when an older gentleman had asked me which contest I had just competed in, I told him it was the Mr. Olympia, and I had got second place.
"Oh, well better luck next time," he had said.
Randy got seven reps, and got stuck halfway up on the eighth. He struggled, face turning crimson, until at last his back and biceps completely gave out and he dropped down from the bar. The difference in effort from his first set to second was like night and day, and it had all been a simple matter of how he thought about precontest training.
"Not bad at all, kid, not bad at all," I said, clapping him on the back. "You keep that up and not only will you not lose any muscle, you may even gain a pound or two over the next six weeks."
"You think, really?" he asked, still trying to catch his breath.
"Absolutely." I went and grabbed a forty-five for my next set. "Now I have to make sure you don't get bigger than me!"
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