Roman reminisces about his time as a bodybuilder - and shares his favorite workouts.
A long time ago in a gym far, far away…Roman was a bodybuilder.
It was the years between 2002 and 2004, and the gym was on Long Island. Things have changed so much that it feels like the experience of bodybuilding may as well have happened in another galaxy, on a planet where binary sunsets are a daily occurrence.
Star Wars geekery aside, while the lifestyle of bodybuilding is extreme, and certainly different than my current one, it’s pretty awesome in it’s own way—and sometimes I miss it.
Sometimes I miss the control of it, of measuring everything, knowing how much weight you could lift on any given exercise to the quarter pound; the exactitudes that are necessary to excel.
Right now is one of those times.
You see, as I write this post, I’m about to board a flight that will take me away from Columbus, Ohio and the Arnold Sports Festival, where I’ve just spent the weekend wandering around in sheer awe of the spectacle.
Now entering it’s 24th year, the Festival (or, “the Circus,” as I’ve heard it called) is comprised of everything from bikini competitions and martial arts bouts to strongman events and powerlifting meets, surrounded by hundreds of booths (collectively known as “the Expo”), each representing a nutrition or equipment company, and each employing a slew of gorgeous fitness models giving out samples.
It’s not hard to see why “circus” might be a good description.
Still, the Main Event is the bodybuilding competition (once known as The Arnold Classic), and the top of the top come to step on stage. This year, that included my buddy Ben Pakulski, who I met in Tampa a few months back. Ben took 4th, which is a huge accomplishment for his first time at the Arnold.
This was my first year at the Classic, and, truth be told, the first time I’ve attended a bodybuilding event since I did my last show in May of 2004.
As I start thinking about the guys who compete, as well as my own history, I’m starting to get a familiar itch: a longing not only for the thrill of competition (both against myself and others), the strange curiosity to see just how much muscle I could pack on my frame, and the general desire to dedicate myself to a specific physical goal and pursue it with ardent determination.
I’m feeling the itch, and while I don’t know that I’ll explore by competing or going on a muscle-gaining spree, I DO want to explore it somewhat academically, by going over some of my bodybuilding based routines with you.
And so, if you’ll be patient enough to bear with me on this little trip through memory lane, I think you will not only get to know me better, but perhaps learn a bit about training. At the very least, you’ll get a workout out of it!
I wasn’t always a bodybuilder. I wasn’t even always fit. If you know my history, or were kind enough to read my about page, you know that I spent most of my adolescent life a bit overweight. Never super-fat, but never lean.
I’m not sure when I started thinking myself as a bodybuilder (or when I stopped, for that matter), but I do know that after maintaining a lean and athletic (read: small) frame of 160-165 for the first 7 or 8 months following my initial weight loss, I wanted to pack some mass on.
And so, around the time I hit my 20th birthday, I started trying to gain as much mass as possible, while staying lean. I did a lot of the bulk-and-cut type approach, but I never bulked so much that I got above 12 or 13%, and never cut enough to lose muscle.
In the first 6-month block, I went from about 165 to 190, then dieted back to 185; essentially I put on about 20 pounds of quality mass. This seems insane to some, because it was about 3+ pounds of muscle per month.
Surprisingly, this was not that difficult for me; perhaps because my body was primed for growth, or perhaps because 185 was still 15 pounds lower than my heaviest weight when I was a chubster. It’s also worth mentioning that as a mesomorph, I tend to put muscle on easily. And, of course, eating enough calories was never a challenge for me.
In a very strange way, the first six months were easy.
The second six were not. Instead of gaining another 15 pounds, I gained 5.
By the time I was 21, I was walking around at a pretty lean 190, and decided that this was a “good start.”
I did a body transformation contest for T-Nation, trying to come in both pretty big and pretty lean, while mastering my particular training and nutrition theories. Here’s what I looked like in the middle of that contest.
Some time after this transformation, I decided to try my hand at competition.
Now, I won’t bore you with the rest of the story, but for the next two years, I threw myself into gaining mass and getting lean.
I went back and forth a lot, because I was doing bulk/cut. For my first contest (of the three I competed in), I dieted too hard and came in at about 188, very lean but just a bit smaller than I would have liked.
At my heaviest, I was tipping the scales at 214 pounds with more body fat than I was comfortable. From there, I dieted down to what I would consider my peak shape as a bodybuilder: 203 pounds at about 7% body fat.
As for some lifts, during this time, I was also close to my strongest, and was training the Big Three very consistently.
For those interested, my best weights ever were:
I recently posted the above picture on my Facebook page, and some people absolutely insisted that I must have been using steroids.
To that, I’ll say honestly that while I have considered steroid use, as of now, I have not used them. (This may change as I age, but I have no intentions of using for performance or physique enhancement).
Personally, I am not against steroids, in the same way that I’m not against drinking or drug use: whatever you put into your body is your business.
All of that said, I did use Pro-Hormones. These are substances that exert an anabolic effect in the body, either through the conversion of or the potentiation of existing hormones.
Meaning that the substance either converts to, for example, testosterone (or something similar) once it’s in your body or increases your own production of it.
The PH I used was produced by Biotest (parent company of T-Nation), and called “Mag-10.” A combination of 4-AD and 1-AE, Mag-10 was available at GNC or the like for about 75 bucks, and designed for use in two-week blocks.
I used it on two occasions; once to gain some mass (going from 201 to 209), and another time to hold to muscle when I was dieting down for a shoot (going from 198 to 188 or so and not losing muscle).
This may or may not negate my “natural” status in your eyes, but that’s a decision for you to make. I’m pretty open about stuff like this, and I don’t credit more than 1% of my success to it.
It would be really hard to give you a complete breakdown of how I set up my training, because it varied so much throughout the year. I often set up my muscle gaining programs into four phases, each lasting four weeks.
That would look something like this:
I have talked about full body workouts ad nauseam on this blog, and while upper lower splits are fun, since this is a bodybuilding post, I’d like to talk about how I set up the training most normally associated with that: split routines. (Next week I’ll talk about specialization programs).
Here is the schedule I used for the third phase of most of my muscle gaining programs.
Monday AM: Chest
Monday PM: Biceps
Tuesday AM: Quads
Tuesday PM: Shoulders
Wednesday AM: OFF
Wednesday PM: Forearms (I know, how lame to have a forearm workout. But it’s a weak part and tried to bring them up) and some extra medial delt work.
Thursday AM: Back
Thursday PM: Triceps
Friday AM: Hamstrings
Friday PM: OFF
Saturday AM: Calves
Now, you’ll notice on most days, I was training twice; once in the morning and once in the evening. (Usually, 11AM and 7PM.) I do not think two-a-days are necessary for muscle growth, and I think this program would had worked just as well if I combined the AM/PM workouts into a single session.
However, you need to keep in mind that I was training full time, and in gym literally 12-14 hours per day, so it was actually more convenient to train multiple times per day. Instead of a single 90+ minute training session, I had two shorter ones of 30-45 minutes each.
This was better for me in terms of scheduling around my clients, for one thing. For another, I have always preferred shorter workouts, as I find that I get distracted after the 60-minute mark and the last part of my workout is pretty useless.
I never subscribed to the idea that chest and triceps (or back and biceps) should be trained together. In fact, it seems absolutely silly to me. In that set up, assuming you’re training intelligently, you’ll do all your chest work. Smart. However, your triceps are going to take a beating from all the pressing in your chest workout. Meaning that the triceps portion of your chest/tri workout is compromised before you do a single rep; you’ll have to use lighter weight, and that can be a problem.
In my set up, after my chest workout, I hit biceps. They are completely fresh and I can get a great workout in 30-40 minutes.
Then, when I work out my back and triceps on Thursday, my chest and biceps will get hit again (to a lesser extent) if I’m using compound exercises. This means that I’m getting the same weekly volume as in a chest/tri set up, but have increased frequency and intensity. Overall, I feel it leads to better gains.
I want to give you as much value as possible, while also making this sort of reflective piece for myself; so rather than just giving a workout, I’m giving you my workout, which will include everything from sets and reps to the actual weights I used.
Regarding those weights, keep in mind that this workout is taken from my training journal when I was in strength/bodybuilding mode. While I was never the strongest guy in the world, some of these are numbers I can no longer hit, because I don’t train for these things specifically anymore. Perhaps I’ll try this workout sometime soon and let you know my weights and performance.
A) High Incline Barbell Bench Press
B1) Low Incline DB Bench Press
Reps: 15/15/15/15/13 (almost made it!)
Weight: 65lb dumbbells
B2) Wide Grip Pull-Up (to near failure)
C) Flat Barbell Bench Press
D) Machine Fly
Sets: 2 (one regular set, one set with a drop set)
Reps: 15, 13–>8
Roman’s Notes: Looking back at this chest workout many years later, a few things stand out. The first thing I notice is the position of the flat barbell bench press—it’s my third chest exercise, and my fourth overall. I did just two sets, and not for many reps; just reinforces that even at that point, I didn’t consider the bench press a very good mass builder, at least not for symmetry. (I stated this in this blog post.) I probably only included it to keep my strength up.
I have no idea why I included the wide-grip pull up, but I suppose it was just to break up the monotony. On the other hand, at that point I could have been prioritizing the movement (not noted in my log), and just trying to increase efficiency. In any case, I’m impressed with the fact that I did so many. I can bang out 18 wide grip now, but I think my drop off in subsequent sets would be much greater than in the workout above.
You’ll also notice that my total volume isn’t super high. I only do a total of 12 sets for chest (13 if you count the second part of the drop set as it’s own set). While this is fair amount, most bodybuilders do 18+ sets. However, keep in mind the structure of my schedule—on Thursday, I’d be working back and triceps, with the triceps portion of the workout being comprised of stuff like dips and close grip bench press, which would hit chest as well; again, similar weekly volume, just greater frequency.
Finally, some things I’d change: I would probably include squeeze presses in there to alternate with the barbell bench press. Other than that, I’m pretty happy with the workout.
A) V-Handle Chin-Up
Weight: bodyweight +35lb dumbbell
B1) Straight Bar Curl
B2) EZ Bar Curl w 3-second pause midway (full squeeze)
C) Nautilus Machine Curl
D) DB Incline Hammer Curl
Weight: 40lb dumbbells
Roman’s Notes: I know, I know. You’re probably thinking, “Geeze, Roman! Not only did you do curls for your biceps, you did so many variations! Why are you such a bro, bro?” Or something like that. Yes, I did a lot of curl variations. If you just know, I just happen to love bicep curls, and my arms always grew very well from them.
Of course, I started the workout with a big compound movement, the V-handle chin-up, which I still think a great start.
What jumps out most about this workout is how strong I was, in terms of both the amount of weight I lifted and the number of reps I lifted it for. As an example, hitting a straight bar curl for 6 reps is, looking back, just a crap-ton of weight. I’d be lucky if I could do that for even one rep now.
In terms of volume, I’ve got 11 sets and am hitting everything from 6 to 15 reps; not bad for a biceps session, especially considering that I’d have a back workout to come later in the week. The set up seems fine to me overall, but if I were to design this workout now, I would probably include drag curls to get some scapular retraction, and do about 50% of the exercises with Fat Gripz to get some forearm work.
That’s what my typical “Phase Three” workout looked when I was a bodybuilder—which is why, by the way, Phase Three of the Super Hero Workout is not only “bodybuilder-y” in terms of the set up, but also uses a body part split like the one above: it’s always worked for my clients and myself.
Of course, as you know, I wasn’t a bodybuilder for too long. I hit my peak at about 24 (pictured above), and after just 3 contests decided I didn’t really find it fulfilling. I knew I didn’t really have the desire to be a pro, and so I started looking at other things.
Eventually I got into fitness and underwear modeling, which required that I lose a bit of size. For those shoots, I would be anywhere from 175 to 193, with 190 being my “perfect” size.
Losing the mass wasn’t that difficult in terms of actually doing it—I basically just needed to eat less, not train any differently—but it took a while.
Here’s a shot of me in transition from bodybuilder to fitness model.
Firstly, how freakin’ hilarious is that cheesey grin on my face? Clearly, my ambition was to get a job in a Colgate commercial.
Anyway, in terms of my physique, you can see that while I’m not as big as I was in the bodybuilding shot above, I’m still holding a lot of mass. I weighed in at about 198 here. In particular, my arms look smaller, especially in relation to both my chest and my lats. My chest is still beefy here, most especially at the shoulder tie-in. My lats are both thick and wide, which is great for bodybuilding but not so much for modeling (especially in clothing).
Eventually I would get smaller overall, and that led to some other stuff, but that’s another blog altogether.
I’m about to board this plane and fly away from the Circus of Bodybuilding, and I realize that I’m not flying away from The Itch. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to be a bodybuilder, but will always appreciate the dedication required for success, and value the lessons learned from the process. While I haven’t done one in a long while, I love workouts like the one above. And, reading it now, I’m pretty tempted to train like this for a few weeks and see where it takes me.