The Zen Of Zane
The ideal modern male physique has shifted from the wasp-waisted men of the past to 5'9" behemoths who tip the scales at 250-plus pounds with 3 percent body fat. This superhero mentality has even found its way into our kids' plastic toys--GI Joe and other action figures now look more steroidal than baseball's all-star game.
Yet, most American guys prefer a more natural, smaller-yet-muscular look. So where did it all change? And how can you achieve the physique you really want?
The answer to both questions may reside with Frank Zane. It's hard to find a guy, straight or gay, who doesn't want Zane's body from the late 1970s in one way or another. In 1968, a young Frank Zane achieved one of his most important bodybuilding milestones: He not only won the 1968 Mr. America and Mr. Universe titles, but he also beat Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"Arnold wasn't ready to win, yet," Zane says. "He was just a big smooth guy without a tan. I didn't see him as competition in that show. "But Joe [Weider] was all over Arnold," Zane says. "Everyone could tell he was destined for greatness." Zane won that battle, but he would lose the physique war.
"I just got beat by a chicken with 17-inch arms," Zane says Arnold said of him at the time. Zane was 5 inches shorter and more than 50 pounds lighter than Arnold, but he was also better proportioned and in better condition. "Arnold's comments fueled me, but you couldn't stay mad at him. He's such a diplomat."
Arnold would go on to win six Mr. Olympia titles and then retire before Zane would win his three. Then, in a typical outflanking maneuver, Arnold came back in 1980 to snag a seventh win in Australia, where Zane was expecting to pick up his fourth. Game, set, match to the Terminator.
That helped set the stage for today's bodybuilders, whose size often rivals that of blue-ribbon winners at the state fair.
Zane cites Steve Reeves, who would go on to star in numerous Italian Hercules films in the 1950s, as his role model. "Everyone can relate to the way he looked," Zane says. "Who can relate to Jay Cutler?" Cutler, the current reigning Mr. Olympia is nose to nose with Zane, but outweighs him by upwards of 70 pounds at their Olympia-winning weights.
If your goal is to achieve a muscular physique with excellent conditioning, but without any sort of enhancement, Frank Zane may be the man with the answers you seek. The good news is that today Zane leads one-on-one training seminar sessions through his business "The Zane Experience." You can go directly to this font of physique wisdom.
That is, if you can find him.
Frank Zane is considered by many to have been the most Greek God-like bodybuilder, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that The Zane Experience seminars are held at his personal gym in his home atop a Greek-monikered mount. Mt. Helix and a nearby peak jut from the California desert suburbs east of San Diego.
They look a bit like mismatched breasts: imagine a gigantic Tara Reid sunbathing nude on her back and you have a pretty good idea of what the landscape looks like from a distant vista. Zane's abode is near the top of the larger mount, about where the aureole might start.
To get Experienced, you must complete a series of semi-mysterious tasks that are the requisite of any worthy quest. "I'll give you directions to my house after you get to the hotel," Zane says. No further information is imparted until you have successfully completed the first assignment of a long night in a third-rate hotel (you learn patience, Grasshopper).
In the morning, Zane provides complicated (but extraordinarily clear) directions to the location of The Zane Experience. Test Two: Can you follow directions? When you pull into his driveway, you feel like you're beginning to feel the power of The Force. You're starting to see the point of "paint the fence."
Zane himself remains in great shape. He is approaching his 70th birthday, but at a first glance, Zane doesn't look that much different from any other healthy Southern Californian in his age bracket. But, with Zane dressed in street clothes, you begin to notice his proportions are much better than those of a typical 69-year-old-bigger chest, smaller waist, thicker thighs.
Inside Zane's equipment-heavy gym, he explains why getting to The Zane Experience is so complicated: "I never write down directions to my house or send them by email. I only deliver them over the phone." Cool. It enhances the mystique, the legend. Ultimately, it would be a letdown if you could Google Earth Obi Wan Kenobi's place in the Hamptons, wouldn't it?
"At its inception, bodybuilding was the yoga of the West," Zane says. "Back when I first started competing it was about camaraderie; there was no money. It was about community." Even back in his day, though, Zane was considered somewhat of an outsider.
Throughout his career, Zane has been revered and mocked for his eclectic interests. His publications are rife with philosophy and poetry. In his book Frank Zane: Mind, Body, Spirit, a training manual with his workouts and personal diaries, Zane writes:
Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed,
and in such desperate enterprise?
If a man does not keep pace with his companions,
perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.
Let him step to the music he hears,
however measured or far away [pg. 125]
In addition to poesy, Zane's other endeavors include playing harmonica (he considers himself quite good), playing guitar, (he's learning but still a neophyte-see "wife opinion", below), fashioning wooden flutes, and studying the algorithms of math. He asks if I want to play a math game, and, despite the challenges of the third-rate hotel and a lack of sleep, I'm pleased to accept the challenge.
"No one's ever beaten me," he intones ominously. It's hard not to envisage Alec Guiness wrapped in a chocolate-brown cloak. We play about ten games, and I beat him only twice. "You're starting to see the algorithm," he says, but explains that I haven't understood it fully. (He's right). I'm still trying to blow up the Death Star with my goggles on.
Zane speaks about the importance of effort. "Christine [Zane's wife] tells me I'm terrible at the guitar. So, I don't play when she's around. I wait for her to go to the gym. But I try to play almost every day." This is one of the most impressive takeaways from a day at Zane-adu: Embrace the things that you aspire to be good at but understand that you never will be.
So much of our culture rewards the honing of innate talent, but today, Zane celebrates improvement over natural proclivity. That's an inspiring shift in perspective from a personality who was the world's best at what he had once dedicated his life to.
Today, Zane makes the bulk of his income from his books and the quarterly mag "Building the Body" and from The Zane Experience. So, what does Frank offer at his personal fitness retreat? First, the opportunity to bask in the company of a man who developed one of the world's best physiques in the history of humankind; second, the opportunity to learn.
The Zane Experience may not be for all tastes-Frank has training philosophies that speak to certain training mentalities more than others. Here's a smattering of what you'll be taught at one of his individual sessions:
1. Learn the Zen/Zane of the set.
"When you're performing a weight set, there is nothing else." Zane says that you must learn to get in touch with the sensation of performing the exercise. "Don't focus on anything but the sensation, not even the breathing. When you've advanced to a state where you are one with the set, your breathing will be in sync with the movement."
Zane recommends that you focus on feedback sensations against the background of counting reps. "It's analogous to a meditation process."
2. Focus on quality.
Zane says that an over-emphasis on the number of reps or weight undercuts the quality of your set. This is kind of the Western-negative to the Eastern-positive of the previous point, but it's important to grasp it from both perspectives. "Don't work to a pre-set number of reps. Don't work to failure. Who wants to fail?
Improving your body has nothing to do with failure. I only work to success." Zane explains that you should conclude your weight set with a rep that you know you can complete with perfect form. Then stop. Rest no more than 90 seconds and perform your next set.
3. Use the proper range of motion.
Back to Zen: Is the full range of motion best for you? Are partial reps better? "When you're performing a set, you should work through the range of motion that helps you achieve the results you want," Zane says. He explains that this is physically intuitive. "If you want to improve a particular part of your body, then you should perform a weight exercise that allows you to feel that part of your body working.
It's about isolation and focus." If you're trying to build your pecs, and full-range benches pump up your tris or front delts, then switch to a range of partial reps that tax your pecs to the max. Can't do as many reps? Can't press as much weight? That's muscle-building bliss--use the range that works your pecs most effectively.
When it comes to flyes, Zane recommends getting a deep stretch, but stopping at the point where your hands are about a foot apart above your chest. Taking your hands closer together allows your chest to rest rather than working it optimally.
4. Picture yourself
"No one has an accurate assessment of themselves, not even champions," Zane says. "You need external feedback." Pictures are a very neutral form of feedback because they are not filtered through other people's psyches. And you can view yourself more objectively in pictures than you can in the mirror, he says. Plus they have the advantage of comparative advantage.
If you take frequent shots of yourself from the same vantage point (lighting and all other variables being relatively equal), you have a much more objective place from which to judge yourself. And don't be too harsh (or flattering) about the way you look; be as objective as you can. While this is an old bodybuilding maxim, Zane explains that it's one of the most important tools for anyone striving to improve the way they look.
5. Learn appreciation
"When I was at my peak, I was never satisfied with the way I looked. I always wanted more. Now, I look back at pictures of me from the past, and I think, That wasn't half bad." Okay, guys, that's an important lesson: FRANK FRICKIN' ZANE wasn't happy with the way he looked at his peak in that moment when he had the best physique in the history of the world! Here's the lesson: celebrate your improvements; don't beat yourself up for what you can't achieve.
6. Take the long view
What's the most important personal attribute in perfecting your physique? Genetics? Drive? Testosterone? "Continuity is how you build a physique," Zane says. Follow his other philosophies with discipline and continuity and you'll have the best physique your genetics allow for. A lot of guys (the hares) have better genes but if you work hard and consistently, you (the tortoise) can outperform them.
When you work out with Frank Zane, you gain a deep understanding that your body truly is a machine. A more shallow reading might view Zane as a series of contradictions--that he has been excessively focused on the exterior while speaking about the importance of the interior.
But--and this is highly interpretive--one could say that Zane transcends that, believing that perfecting your exterior comes from within. Without the existential connection between your inner being and an understanding of the universe itself, it's truly impossible to build a better, more beautiful body, however deep or shallow that goal may be.
Suck It Up
Frank Zane is famous for his "vacuum" abs pose, confoundingly difficult for many modern-day bodybuilders to perfect. To perform the pose, Zane, would lift his arms over head, dropping the forearms below the elbows (basically the start position of a two-arm dumbbell extension).
Then, he would pull in his abs so that they collapsed under his rib cage, giving his abs that impressive hollowed out look. To perform this pose, you need impeccable midsection control. Zane recommends the following abs routine to work up to it:
- Dumbbell Pullovers: 4 sets of 15 reps
- Roman Chair Sit-Ups: 1 set of 50-500 reps
Here are Zane's comments on the moves:
"I believe that you have to perform dumbbell pullovers to develop your serratus so that you can perform the vacuum pose properly." Zane says you should lie crosswise on the bench with only your upper back and neck contacting it so that you can drop your hips below bench level to get a greater stretch at extension.
Hold a moderate-weight dumbbell with both arms over your chest, and lower the weight over your head until your arms are parallel to the floor. As you do so, emphasize a stretch in your abdominals, especially the upper area. Then, holding the abs taut, bring the dumbbell back over head, forcing a contraction into your abs at the end of the move.
Roman chair sit ups:
When I was training for bodybuilding contests, I would follow this program that I adapted from Zabo Kazuski's training," Zane says. "I didn't need to do any other abs work, and this sufficed as my cardio training as well." If you're new to high-rep work, start with far fewer reps--say 50 and slowly build up.
To perform the move, lock your lower legs under the pads, and feel a stretch as you lower your body, contract your abs and use your midsection to pull you back to the starting point of the move. Try to avoid overemphasizing hip flexors or other muscles as you focus on the stretch and contraction in your abs.