A Lesson from Sardinia

I’m sure most people that have an interest in bodybuilding are familiar with the Mr. Olympia competition. After all, it’s been going on for over five decades now. As many know about it, only 13 men have claimed the title throughout those decades. One of those men held the title twice during the “Golden Era” and was also one of the few shorter men to do it in a time when the tall ruled the stage. As some may have found out by the title of this post I’m talking about Franco Columbu. Franco won the Olympia title twice during his day. Once in 1976 and again in the early eighties. The 1976 win came after Arnold’s retirement left space for a successor to the title. Obviously Franco was all too happy to oblige. It has become well known from that time and since that Franco and Arnold have been close friends throughout the years. Two of the top bodybuilders ever being long-time friends makes for a nice story. Their friendship continues to present day.

I’m not here to talk about heartwarming stories of victory and friendship though. I’m here to discuss something that Franco gave me recently. Something that in all my reading and research I could find nowhere else. What is it? A plan. Something I think will solve many of the issues I’ve had thus far trying to build my own body. Some years ago he wrote a rather short book on bodybuilding titled “Winning Bodybuilding.” In my random travels throughout the Amazon Kindle store I stumbled on it. At first glance it looks like it was written in the late 70’s or so. The cover is definitely lacking when compared to today’s graphic design conventions. No matter though. This was written by Franco Columbu. Who could be a more definitive source than a former Mr. Olympia? Turns out, not many.

I immediately devoured the book in a short time span. I probably  read through in less than a day. But, alas, there is where I went astray. See, the book is quite basic. As I read through I thought I had picked up on all the interesting bits it had to offer. I thought I had separated the wheat from the chaff. Time to move on! Thankfully, and not a moment too soon, I decided to revisit the work. Much to my surprise, and delight, I discovered something. What I feel will turn out to be the secret to all my hard work and training efforts.

I’ve written about training splits before. Two times a week, three, four, five, six, and even seven. I’ve tried as many as five and as little as three. Four seems to have been a common one I fall back on. I think it provides the best balance of rest and work. The trick is this though; it’s not how many days a week you workout, it’s what you do on those days. When I first started I was doing three days a week. These were all whole-body routines that hit EVERY muscle group each day. Chest, arms, shoulders, back, and legs. By a certain point I was able to do simply too much in a given workout. I didn’t have the time. An hour-and-a-half and 30,000 pounds later, I’m wiped. That’s all well and good, but I simply don’t have that long each day to train. Not right now anyway. After sometime I went to a four day split. This split the muscle groups up a little bit further. Chest and triceps one day, back and biceps another, shoulders got their own and so did legs. Again, workouts got too long. Not only that, but, I wasn’t seeing the gains I was hoping for. I wasn’t seeing the results so many had apparently reported for that particular program. So, another one bites the dust. Then, I suppose the logical next step, a five day split. I thought this was going to be it for me. The one. Each day a different muscle group. Chest. Arms. Back. Shoulders. Legs. Pound as much volume into an hour on each one. It worked out okay I guess. I felt good, but still no visible gains. No gains to be felt either. It turned out to be a letdown. An epic one actually. I was truly hoping for more.

Recently I wrote a post about the 5/3/1 strength program. I did a full one month cycle of that and I will admit, it did make me feel like I was gaining strength. That isn’t a bad thing at all, but for me, right now, that isn’t my main goal. I want some level of hypertrophy. Big muscles lifting big weights. This program also was built around muscle groups done once a week. This got me to thinking “there has to be a better way.”

By now, I’ve read in numerous books, magazines, and online resources about bodybuilding. One thing that many of them discuss, with probably not nearly enough detail, is the staircase effect. The basic idea is that one step at a time will eventually get you to the top of the stairs. That certainly makes sense. No different than moving a mountain or eating an elephant! The issue comes into play when you try to figure out exactly how it works. How it ties into YOUR program. This is where Dr. Columbu comes into play. His book, in a rather inconspicuous location, discusses the different split routines one can use. He is an opponent of anything less than three days per week. I would tend to agree. It does seem that, except for the absolute beginner, this would prove to be somewhat worthless. He went on to discuss the other available days to work with. The lightbulb he lit for me was the staircase effect and a split I hadn’t yet tried to utilize. The upper body/lower body split. I’ve known about this for some time now, but was never really sure how to apply it. It sounds stupid and it probably is. Especially when you consider a book written nearly 40 years ago is what brought it to my attention. Better late than never I suppose!

Regardless, his concept of upper/lower split is to use either a four day split breaking them out equally or using a five day split. The five day split alternates three days of upper and two days of lower for one week and switches for the next week. I’m starting with a four day equal split to see how it works for me. My hope is that by hitting legs hard twice a week, I’ll see major improvements all throughout. I don’t think doing squats once a week is worth, well, squat. I’m also finding I enjoy the variety and pacing of the workouts. I basically created a very low level workout routine. Two sets of each exercise. Two exercises per muscle group. Upper body consists of three different routines hitting different exercises and angles each time. Lower body is the same for all workouts. For example, the main chest exercise for each day could be: Bench Press, Incline Press, or DB Press. I add an assistance to this and call it good.

I’m only a week into this, but it has been a sore week. My legs have been on fire for days. My chest, the first time, took two or three days to recover. I haven’t experienced that in quite some time. Needless to say, I’m going to stick with this for a while. I’ve left myself plenty of room to grow in terms of weight, sets, and reps. I certain it will be beneficial. I’m just glad it took knowledge from the “Golden Era” to get me on the right track. After all, if you’re going to build your body, is there anyone better to model after than Arnold’s best friend, Franco Columbu? I’m not sure there is!

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