Preface, by Stuart
This interview was instigated by Chuck Miller, and carried out by email. Chuck came up with “Inside the Mind of an Iron Icon” for the book’s title, and gives his reasoning in his introduction.
The interview is especially targeted at bodybuilders, general strength trainees, and powerlifters—of all ages and levels of accomplishment—but it will help anyone who wants to train more effectively. As Chuck put it, “While you emphasize strength gains as a way to build muscle and measure progress, you’ve written all along to more of a bodybuilding and general strength-training audience than to powerlifters. Your method just happens to work great for powerlifting also.”
I’ve known Chuck since he subscribed to HARDGAINER magazine, around 1992. A few years later he became a contributor to the magazine. He has been a drug-free, competitive powerlifter for about 20 years, and has achieved Raw Elite totals in two weight classes. He’s a large, very strong man, and exceptionally knowledgeable about strength training.
My recommendations have always been targeted primarily at trainees who are drug-free and either genetically normal for building muscle and strength, or genetically disadvantaged. But many genetically gifted trainees have benefited tremendously from embracing my training recommendations, as have many drug-assisted trainees.
There are, of course, other methods that work well for trainees who have exceptionally advantageous genetics for building muscle and strength, and/or drug support. None of those methods are explained in this book because they don’t work well, if at all, for genetically normal, drug-free trainees.
I wish that an interview along the lines of this one had been available for me to study during my youth, especially my first year of weight training. Then I could have gotten on the right path from the start, and made the most of what should have been my prime training years (age 16 to 35).
But what this interview teaches isn’t just for youngsters, or beginners. It’s for everyone who’s serious about lifting weights.
Although I’m the subject of this interview, the lessons provided aren’t based on just my own journey. The lessons are a fusion of the experiences and acquired wisdom of generations of strength trainees.
The “hard-gainer” label
The term “hard gainer” appears a number of times in this book. For 15 years it was the title of my magazine, HARDGAINER. It was, however, a term coined before I was born. Through my writing and publishing, starting in the 1980s, I’ve done much to publicize the term, in an effort to target the segment of the weight-training population that was neglected by mainstream bodybuilding instruction.
The term “hard gainer” has been much misunderstood over the years.
The segment of the training population I’ve focused on comprises the majority of those who are serious about building strength and muscle, drug-free. Such trainees are “hard gainers,” or even “impossible gainers,” when they apply modern-day, conventional bodybuilding methods. These methods have, of course, worked fantastically well for some drug-enhanced, genetically gifted bodybuilders. These “champions” have been deified by the mainstream bodybuilding press since around 1960, when the use of steroids took off at the top level of the physique world.
“Train like a champion to become a champion yourself” has long been a mantra touted by the mainstream bodybuilding press, but the mantra should include the caveat “but you also need the genetic good fortune of the champions, and their drug assistance.”
“Hard gainers” are actually normal gainers, because most people have normal (or typical) genetics for bodybuilding, although there’s a range of normal “gainability” potential.
Some strength trainees who were initially self-assessed as “hard gainers” or “impossible gainers,” because of how poorly they responded to conventional weight-training methods, went on to achieve astonishing progress, without drugs. But they were properly informed on how to train and recuperate, and highly motivated to apply themselves properly for long enough.
Most strength trainees who find gains hard to make are guilty of the same errors: They overestimate the volume of weight training that’s best for them, don’t focus on the best exercises, don’t use correct exercise technique, don’t train hard enough, don’t fully satisfy the components of recuperation, don’t strive enough (if at all) to build strength, don’t set goals properly, and don’t keep workout records.
Even when the overall training-recuperation package is in good order, it must be applied with dogged determination for at least several years in order to achieve something special in terms of muscle and might.
It’s a tough ask, but this interview is about truth. It’s the antithesis of the execrable guidance in the training world that’s wrapped up with sufficient lies, paid-for endorsements, and photographs (probably digitally enhanced), to deceive trainees into making some people rich.
Effort properly applied
While hard weight training is essential, it’s not enough in itself to change you from a hard gainer into a good gainer.
I trained with ferocious effort when I was in my youth. Older trainees used to tell me I trained too hard, and that I should back off somewhat. I didn’t believe them. The more I crushed myself in the gym, the better, or so I thought.
I may have been the hardest-training person at the most hard-core bodybuilding gym in which I ever trained. But the man with the best physique there never pushed a single set like I pushed all of mine.
I didn’t know then that he was on bodybuilding drugs, and had better genetics for bodybuilding than I have, which was the combination that made him an easy (or very responsive) gainer. His motto was, “I train, so I grow. Simple.” Growing wasn’t a problem for him, but what worked so well for him doesn’t work for most strength trainees and bodybuilders.
Because of my zeal at that gym right from my first few workouts there, shown in part by some death-march 20-rep squats the gym owner spotted me on, he identified me as a serious bodybuilder. A few workouts later, he told me I had no chance of success as a physique contestant unless I took steroids. I didn’t believe him. Back then, in the late 1970s, I thought that drugs and special genetics weren’t required for physique greatness. “All” that was required, I believed then, was desire, super-hard weight training, and lots of food, sleep, and rest in general.
I was also aware that steroids are dangerous. I didn’t want to put my health at risk. Furthermore, the use of performance enhancing drugs is cheating, and I couldn’t cheat.
But desire, super-hard weight training, and lots of food, sleep, and rest in general, didn’t work for me. “Supplementing” with enough steroids would have fixed my gaining problems, but that wasn’t an option.
Hard weight training is essential, but it must be properly applied.
The setting and achieving of goals
An essential part of strength training is setting challenging but realistic goals (or targets), achieving the goals, and then setting new ones.
When a goal has been achieved, enjoy the success; but to avoid complacency (or even regression), set a new goal. Continually challenge yourself with new goals. This keeps you motivated, which is essential if you’re to keep turning up at the gym, training hard, and satisfying the components of your recuperation outside of the gym.
But to maintain this vibrancy and dedication, your training must be effective. You must see sufficient results. So your routines must be well designed and properly implemented. Then success will breed success.
For strength training, your most immediate training goals are to notch up smidgens of progress at your next workout. For example, an extra rep on some work sets, a set of five reps with a tad more to spare on the very final fifth rep than the previous time you did that particular performance, a set of five squats with a pound more on the bar, a set of five seated presses with half a pound more on the bar, and so on.
Inch by inch, strength training’s a cinch.
Take it one workout at a time, one day’s nutrition at a time, one night’s sleep at a time. Just one day at a time, dedication’s a cinch.
It’s essential that you keep a training diary. At its most basic this is a written record of reps and poundage for every work set, and a brief evaluation of each workout so that you can stay alert to warning signs of overtraining. After each workout, reflect on your evaluation and, when necessary, make adjustments to avoid falling foul of overtraining.
It’s not enough simply to train hard on a good routine. You must train hard with a target to try to beat in every work set you do. The targets are your achievements the previous time you did the same workout. Know exactly what to try to beat. Refer to your training log. Don’t rely on your memory.
Your royal road to success
Apply with relentless persistence the teachings explained in this book, and you’ll make very good progress, perhaps a ton of it.
Your age, and your genetic make-up for physique and strength, affect your pace of progress and your current potential, but you can’t do anything about your age and your genetics.
What you can do plenty about, though, is your training and your recuperation. You have total control there.
But you must be super savvy about how you train and recuperate.
Forget gimmicks, ignore claims for “easy” methods, and have nothing but scorn for the lie that food supplements are the “solution” for poor progress. And be contemptuous of the execrable guidance that’s rampant in the training world, including the routines that work well only for individuals who are genetically highly gifted for bodybuilding and/or juiced up with pharmaceutical support.
And always give great importance to your health, to try to give yourself the best chance possible of leading a long, vigorous life.
Make the most of what this book teaches. It can help you tremendously.
But start today.
You’ll never be younger than you are now.
CHUCK: Are 20-rep squats and deadlifts the “magic bullets” for many trainees that they were sometimes portrayed as in the past?
STUART: They are not the “magic bullets,” but two of a number of possible ones.
When done properly, 20-rep squats and 20-rep deadlifts are highly effective. But most people who try them don’t do them properly, and thus don’t make the progress they had hoped for. And even when they are done properly, they are so difficult that few trainees persist with them long enough to reap the potential big dividends.
The 20-rep squat routine helped me, but it also frustrated me a great deal because I made many mistakes due to ignorance and foolishness.
Had I known when I was young what I know now, I’d have made much more progress than I actually did. I wouldn’t have wasted so much time doing the routine wrongly, and I wouldn’t have kept getting injured.
For me, the barbell squat wasn’t the best exercise for the 20-rep work. My leverages are better suited to deadlifting-type exercises. But it was only after many years that I finally understood that.
Of course, had I applied better squatting form when I was young, I would have benefited much more from the 20-rep squats than I actually did.
Although I had mediocre genetics for muscle and might, and I never used drugs, I was eventually able to deadlift 400 pounds for a set of 20 reps, at a bodyweight of 195 pounds. But that was possible only because I used simple routines, worked out just twice weekly (but deadlifted just once a week), trained very hard, and didn’t cut corners with my nutrition.
In hindsight, I would have done better, for bodybuilding purposes, had I used the parallel-grip deadlift for the 20-rep work rather than the conventional deadlift, because the former permits more knee flexion. At the time I didn’t have the necessary bar.
Especially if your leverages are more suited to the barbell squat than mine, squat your heart out for the 20-rep work. When done properly, the barbell squat is one of the greatest exercises, and not just for 20-rep work.
But it’s not a case of the squat or the parallel-grip deadlift. Most trainees would benefit greatly from both of these exercises.
Although I like 20 reps for squats, parallel-grip deadlifts and conventional deadlifts, and often recommend them, I also like lower rep ranges, and recommend them. For example, sets of five reps are terrifically effective when applied properly. A routine could employ multiple counts. For example, one that has 20 reps for the linchpin exercise could include sets of five reps for the other major exercises.
Reps lower than five, including singles, can also be very effective when properly applied. But most trainees who try very low reps, and singles, don’t apply them properly, so they don’t get good results.
In another answer I summarize how to perform singles properly.
CHUCK: What’s your own biggest training-related regret?
STUART: That I didn’t realize my full bodybuilding and strength potential.
If you want to realize your full potential for muscle and might, avoid the mistakes I made. Here’s a summary of the three elements that denied me the opportunity to realize my full bodybuilding and strength potential:
1. Most of what should have been my most productive training years (from age 16 to 35) were undermined by my insufficient understanding of how to train properly.
2. Four of those years—when I was vegan—were totally wrecked for bodybuilding and strength building.
Despite all that waste, I still managed to build about 45 pounds of muscle, and enough strength to deadlift 400 pounds for a set of 20 reps, at age 33. So I’d done enough right, albeit in spurts between longer spells on ineffective routines, to make a huge difference to my physique and strength.
3. But then the liberties I’d taken with exercise form took their full toll, and severely limited my training thereafter. Instead of forging ahead from age 33, I struggled with injuries and limitations. I got the problems sorted out eventually, but not sufficiently so that I could ever barbell squat, deadlift or parallel-grip deadlift with the poundages and intensity required to benefit from those stellar exercises.
Not that I’m a wreck now. Far from it, as I explain later on in an answer to a question regarding my own training today.
Had I been properly informed about training routine design and exercise technique from when I started out, and had I applied that knowledge, I’d not have wasted much time on useless training routines, I’d not have adopted veganism, and I’d not have damaged my back and knees.
Then, instead of an accumulation of just a few years of effective training from 16 until 35, I could have had up to 19 of them.
Even in an ideal world it wouldn’t be realistic to expect all 19 of those years to have been productive. There would have been wasted time from trying some inferior training routines, there could have been accidents outside of the gym that messed up my training for a while, and other circumstances of life could have put a temporary brake on progresss.
But provided there was enough desire and training knowledge, and an indomitable spirit, it’s not unreasonable to have expected 12 to 15 of the 19 years to be productive.
Furthermore, in the aforementioned ideal scenario—because I wouldn’t have used terrible exercise technique—I wouldn’t have had the serious injuries as from age 33, and I wouldn’t have had to proscribe some of the very best exercises from then on. Then I would have been able to keeping nudging ahead, relentlessly, until around my mid-forties, when a plateau would probably have been reached.
In this scenario I’d have achieved something very special for someone with mediocre genetics for bodybuilding, and drug-free.
You can’t get back any wasted years, but you can ensure you don’t waste any more years. If you’re young at present, especially don’t waste your prime training years.
During my youth I was tortured by the dissatisfaction I experienced as a result of the only modest bodybuilding progress I made then. I was consumed by bodybuilding. It was by far the most important thing in my life at that time. And because of it I neglected everything else in my life, including my education.
As I matured, and learned first-hand that there’s a great deal in life that’s way more important than bodybuilding, the regret that I didn’t realize my full genetic potential for muscle and might lessened.
Nevertheless, the regret still lingers today.