Golden Era Gains

by Nathan Tomasello

Golden Era Gains

What comes to mind when you think of the bodybuilding culture in Southern California in the early 1970?  The iconic shots of Arnold, Franco, and the rest of the competitors training at Golds Gym Venice and Muscle Beach are the images that define the golden era of bodybuilding.  When you think of the training methods from that time frame you probably picture heart rate monitors, hammer strength machines, and line graphs depicting force production and anaerobic threshold…wait, what?

Although there have been amazing advances in our understanding of strength training and “muscle building” since the golden era bodybuilding, the main training protocol of their day is still relevant and used by bodybuilders and weightlifters today.  Arnold and his counterparts lifted heavy weight with intensity on big compound movements and focused on isolating individual muscles on small detail exercises that emphasized full range of motion and contraction of the muscle. This is how I first learned to lift weights 25 years ago.  

Although the golden era training style is still utilized by many bodybuilders today, some of the exercises used by these pioneers of the sport have faded from the gym culture of today.  The golden era bodybuilders often invented or put unique spins on exercises in their quest to get bigger and stronger. Today I want to teach you 4 of these lost classics and explain to you how to incorporate them into your training regimen to get those elusive Golden Era Gains.

  1. Sissy Squats

Targets: the quadriceps

Form:  Stand in a squat rack with your feet even with the front posts.  Reach down and grab the posts at arms length with your hands in an overhand (palms facing back) position.  Keeping a straight line from your knees thru your hips to your shoulders, lean back and bend at the knees until your body is parallel to the floor.  At the bottom position you will be up on your toes, and you want to make sure to keep your hips high. Extend your legs as if you were doing an actual machine Leg Extension to return to the upright starting position.

Application:  While this movement may have fallen out of favor because of stress on the knees, I think when done properly and not allowing your knees to come too far forward this is generally safe for your joints.  Unlike a seated machine leg extension, there is no fixed object under your knees which are acting as the fulcrum in this exercise. The combination of the seat and the downward pressure from the weight creates a lot of strain on the knee when using a leg extension machine.  Because there is no seat in this extension variation, that pressure is not an issue.

There are two great ways that I believe Sissy Squats can add value to your leg routine.  The first is to utilize this exercise as a burnout for the quads either at the end of the workout or by supersetting it with a big compound movement like leg press.  The second, and in my opinion more effective method, is to use Sissy Squats to “pre-exhaust” your quads for squats or leg press. Have you ever had trouble really taxing your quads on a squat workout, and despite doing a lot of volume or weight, the next day you just end up with sore glutes and hamstrings?  This is because your quads are typically stronger relative to your hamstrings and thus have a higher threshold before failure. Since your hammys are typically the “weak link” in your squat they will fail before your quads are completely taxed. By pre exhausting your quads with a high rep set of Sissy Squats then moving directly into a heavy set of barbell squats you are sure to push your quads to the absolute limit.

  1. Donkey Calve Raises

Targets: The calves

Form:  Stand with your toes on a step and bend forward, resting your elbows on a railing or plyo box.  Load your body with weight either by hanging plates from a weighted belt or have your workout partner or partners sit on your back.  Get a good stretch as you lower your heals then contract your calves fully as you come all the way up onto your toes. Keep your legs as straight as possible and do not bounce.

Application:  There are probably two main reasons that this calve raise variation has fallen by the way side - first, most lifters hate working their calves (yes I am talking to YOU) and routinely skip the lower part of their leg.  The second reason is that Donkey Calve Raises look kind of ridiculous - after all, your workout partner is riding on your back, meaning you are the donkey. But if you can get past that little bit of awkwardness, then I highly suggest you incorporate this golden era gem.  The stretch is such a key factor in calve training and this movement gives you a stretch like none other.

DB Pull overs

Targets: Lats, Serratus, Triceps, Upper Abs, Pecs

Form: Lay across a bench with your hips as low as possible.  Grab a dumbbell and hold it over your chest with your elbows facing out.  stretch back as far as possible with the goal of touching the dumbbell to the floor.  do not allow your hips to raise during the movement and try to keep your elbows bent but locked to avoid turning it into a tricep dominate movement.  Breath in deep and expand your ribs as you lower the weight then exhale, or better yet, growl, as you pull the weight back to over top of your body.

Application:  The reason you don’t see this exercise much anymore in the gym?  Probably because it is difficult and painful - but in a good way.  Arnold was a big believer in this “hips lower than the bench” style of pull overs and they have enjoyed a resurgence of sorts lately by my Old School Gym co-owner Cory G who has been advocating for them for years.  Will this exercise really expand your rib cage like Arnold said? I’m not sure, but I do know that Cory G has been hitting pullovers consistently for the past 20 years, and he has thick upper abs, chilled serratus and huge lats and pecs.  Good enough for me. Because this movement works so many different muscles you can utilize it on either a back or chest day, or my favorite is to throw this into the mix with some good old fashioned golden era chest and back push/pull supersets.  

Barbell Rows on a bench

Targets: Lats, Rhomboids, rear delts

Form:  Grab a barbell with either an overhand or under hand grip and stand on a bench with your feet together.  I prefer to sit the bar on the bench and deadlift it up from a deficit, stand up straight, then keep your back perfectly flat as you bend over until parallel with the floor.  Perform slow, controlled rows, touching the bar to your stomach with every rep.

Application:  The reason you have probably never seen rows performed this way?  Because of the balance and control required you have to use considerably less weight than a traditional Barbell Row.  I personally love this variation because it eliminates two of the common mistakes I see with rows: not squeezing the weight at the top, and hitching or using your legs and lower back to pull the weight towards your stomach.  Try this golden era gem with a light weight - I typically only use 135lbs - and concentrate on staying low with a flat back and getting a good squeeze at the top.

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