40 is the New 20

The date was August 19, 1989, and as I stood onstage at my second-ever bodybuilding competition, I listened with nervous anticipation as the announcer counted down the top five placements. I was only 20 years old, weighing in at a skinny but sharp and proportionate 171, wondering if after just three years of hard training I could actually go home as the winner of the Natural Mr. Eastern USA title.”In fifth place…! In fourth!” Wow, I’m still standing. They haven’t called my name yet. Is it possible? Am I dreaming? “In third place…!” Holy crap, I’m in the top two! The other guy looks pretty damn good. He’s thicker than I am and just as hard, but I know I have a better overall look. It’s apples and oranges. Fingers, toes and eyes crossed. “In second place…! And the winner of the men’s middleweight division is Eric Broser!”

The crowd goes absolutely wild—packed as it is with dozens of my friends and family members. My heart is beating wildly, and I struggle to fight back the tears. As I grab the trophy and hold it over my head, I realize that this will be one of the most memorable and satisfying moments of my life.

So here I am, 20 years later, and yes, that first win was still the sweetest. I often find myself reflecting on that day. It never fails to bring a smile to my face and a boost to my spirit. As I sit at my computer just a few months away from my 40th birthday, however, I look in the mirror and see the reflection of a physique that isn’t merely as good as it was on that winning day 20 years ago; it’s far superior. That’s right, I look bigger and better today at age 40 than I did at age 20, albeit with a few extra aches and pains. That’s the beautiful thing about the bodybuilding lifestyle: If you live it every day, you can get better with age, like a fine wine.

Even so, there are significant differences in how I must approach my training and diet at my present age compared to when I was a kid. Wait, did I just say that? Hold on a second. I still am a kid—and I have the PlayStation and Wii to prove it.

To achieve longevity in bodybuilding, especially if your goal is to continue to improve your physique over time, you must be not only consistent, dedicated and disciplined but also intelligent and calculating in your efforts. Your program must evolve if you want to keep pace with the changes in your body that naturally manifest themselves as you get older. You can’t expect to be able to train and eat as you did 20 years ago and achieve the same type of progress. In most cases that approach causes regression and, more than likely, injury. So let me discuss how my physique-building strategy differs today from 20 years ago.


That was then: My warmups were not what you would call extensive when I was a young buck. Basically, all I’d do was walk into the gym, decide what exercise was going to be first in the routine and then do two to three progressively heavier sets of about 15, 12 and eight reps before launching into my first work set. Perhaps I’d do another quick warmup set of each new exercise after the first one, just to show my joints and nervous system the new movement and angle that were about to be attacked. That was pretty much it, and it worked fine. But that was then….

This is now: These days the first thing I do is make my way over to a treadmill or stationary cycle for a five-to-10-minute medium-paced walk or ride. I do that to get some blood pumping through my system and raise my core temperature. Luckily, I live in a warm climate; getting my body into a light sweat does not take very long.

Next I do some calisthenic-type exercises for my lower back, including side bends and twists. I’ve had some serious disk injuries in the past, so that’s vital to my warmup. From there I move to various shoulder roll and rotation movements, as well as direct rotator cuff exercises using dumbbells and/or cables. Once I’ve chosen where I’m going to start my workout, I usually do three to four progressively heavier warmup sets of that particular exercise and at least one to two warmups for each exercise thereafter. I never skip or rush through any portion of my warmup; I believe that’s essential to staving off muscular and joint injury.

Exercise Form

That was then: Compared to the average younger trainee, I usually had pretty good exercise form. Still, I often found myself getting somewhat sloppy in an attempt to move more weight than I was truly ready to handle. There was a little of the infamous bouncing of the bar off the chest to claim a bigger bench press, some serious back arch on barbell curls, minor body English during my “power” laterals and more than a just a bit of jerking when trying to outlift Dorian on bent-over rows—Dorian never had to worry much.

Almost all of the younger guys go through sloppiness at one point or another, and that’s okay—as long as the cheating is not so excessive that it causes a major injury. When you’re young, of course, your body is quite resilient and can take a major pounding without falling apart. If you keep using loose form for too many years, though, it will eventually catch up with you, usually in the knees, shoulders, elbows and/or lower back.

Still, I look back on those years with affection and recognize that the overload the extraheavy weights forced on my muscles did effectively produce hypertrophy and made me rather functionally strong. But that was then….

This is now: If I tried to lift with the same loose and explosive style today, I’d probably end up a cripple. That’s not to say I don’t lift heavy and intensely these days. Quite the contrary—the form and lifting tempo that I tend to use now are in many ways far more brutal and intense than ever but at the same time safer.

On most exercises I use textbook form, with a very full range of motion—until it’s X-Rep time, of course—and a slower lifting speed, especially in the eccentric portion of each lift. That forces the resistance to move solely through muscular contraction rather than momentum, with the force falling squarely on the target muscles instead of joints and connective tissue. When an exercise gets more difficult, I usually slow the movement down even more, although the natural tendency would be to speed it up. To me that’s when a set gets down and dirty and it’s time to dig deep and make the muscles go to work.

Bottom line: If you want to stay injury-free as you train into your 40s and beyond, you have to tighten up your form and become conscious of every movement you make when lifting weights. Go after the target muscle for sure, but at the same time keep your entire body tight and stable. Not only will your muscle growth be more efficient, but you’ll also get to use more ice in your protein shakes than on your joints.

Training Frequency

That was then: Unbelievably enough, when I was in my late teens and early 20s, I’d train on a three-days-on/one-day-off schedule most of the year, and when I was about 12 weeks out from a competition, I would step it up to a four-days-on/one-day-off program. Thinking about it now, I have no idea how I did it. While it might not have been the optimal frequency for my body even back then—I believe I would have progressed more quickly with more rest—not only did I do well on that schedule, I thrived on it. Between the ages of 19 and 24 I gained about 50 pounds and could toss around some pretty big weights. At the time most of the pro bodybuilders I admired trained at least six days per week, and I felt I had to do the same if I ever wanted to look anything like my heroes. With my hormones in full swing; very little pressure or stress in my life; a ton of eggs, red meat, milk, pasta, potatoes and fruit filling my belly; and upwards of 10 hours of sleep per night, I was easily able to recover from such frequent beatings. But, that was then….

This is now: What works best for me is a two-days-on/one-day-off/two-days-on/two-days-off training routine. Anytime I attempt to train more than two days in a row, I have a poor workout on the third day, become rundown—maybe even catch a sniffle…. Pass the Kleenex, please—and/or begin to feel an old injury rear its ugly head. It’s almost as if my body is reminding me that after two days it wants a break from the weights. That’s fine by me.

Most weeks I’m in the gym on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, giving me weekends off, which works quite well with my social calendar. While I might do some cardio work on my off days, depending on the time of year, that doesn’t make inroads into my recovery ability the way lifting weights does. Indeed, studies have demonstrated that off-day cardio augments the body’s process of healing from training. I’ve been making steady progress on my current routine, have fewer nagging aches and pains and feel rather energetic most of the time, leading me to believe that I’ve found the optimal training frequency for my 40-year-old physique.

Training Volume

That was then: When I was around 20 years old, not only did I train more frequently, but I also did many more sets per bodypart than I do today. Although I was never one for those crazy four-hour 30-to-40-sets-per-muscle marathons, I was still able to maintain a relatively high workload without repercussions. I performed anywhere from 15 to 18 work sets for the larger muscle groups—quads, chest, lats and shoulders, for example—and somewhere between eight to 14 sets for the remainder of my bodyparts. Because of my training frequency, however, I worked each muscle twice per week. Today each bodypart gets only one beating per week, with the exception of abs and calves. As for the training program from my early days, it’s a wonder I had time to do anything else, although I’m pretty sure my only concerns at age 20 were getting big and getting girls. But that was then….

This is now: At this writing the bodypart I’m prioritizing is my back. I feel that compared to my chest, it lacks thickness and depth, which gives those two opposing muscle groups a somewhat disproportionate look. Consequently, I do more sets for my back than for any other muscle group, maybe 10. That seems like a lot. I blast chest and quads in seven to eight sets, beat down hamstrings and shoulders in six to seven sets, fry biceps and triceps in just five to six sets and hit the rest of the muscles in four or fewer total work sets.

While that’s not exactly Mentzerian—is that a word?—it falls under the definition of low-volume training compared to the way most trainees work out. Truth is, why do more if I don’t need more? Remember, I’m currently in the best shape of my life, carrying more muscle than ever with definition and density that match my best competitive stats. It might seem that the longer you’ve been training, the more you’d need to do in order to continue to improve, but that’s not the case with bodybuilding—and there are reasons for it.

Next time I’ll talk about why less is more as we get older and touch on several other areas of my program, which has evolved over my many years in the gym. Until then, remember, you’re not getting older, only better—and probably a little balder…. Rogaine, anyone? IM

What I’m really here to do is further discuss the differences between my training strategies of today vs. 15 or 20 years ago and offer you a look at my current workout and diet.

Exercise Selection

That was then: When I started lifting weights in my mid-teens, I had only one goal: to get big. I needed muscle and bulk badly because at 5’11 1/2″ and 125 pounds I looked less intimidating than my sister. After extensive research I discovered that the fastest road to raw size was through basic, heavy movements. That’s why I based my program on squats, leg presses, deadlifts, bent-over rows, bench presses, incline presses, weighted dips, military presses, barbell curls and skull crushers.

Unlike many misinformed beginners I stayed away from the fancy machine and cable exercises and busted my butt with good old heavy metal—it worked. I got bigger, and I got stronger, and everyone around me noticed. Most people believed I was on the juice—and I was. Apple, grape and orange were my favorites. After many years of training that way, however, I noticed that I looked more like a wrestler or football player than a bodybuilder. I was a mound of mass without shape or artistry. In addition, my joints were taking a real beating, and I began to accumulate my share of aches and pains. But that was then.

This is now: Nowadays my goals are somewhat different, although I’m still seeking more muscle mass and always will. More than anything, however, I’m meticulously attempting to sculpt the perfect physique, at least as perfect as my own genetics will allow. My focus is on refinement of every muscle group, which includes better overall shape, lines and tie-ins.

I also am seeking better separation between muscle groups and improved proportion and aesthetics. In order to accomplish those things, I now use many different exercises, as well as angles, grips and stances. I still include at least one basic movement per workout but also venture toward more isolation exercises, using dumbbells, cables and machines of all types. In fact, I’m constantly trying out new ways to position my body and alter the angle of push or pull in order to target a muscle—or section of a muscle—with laserlike precision.

Don’t get me wrong—I still love to lift heavy and can still move plenty of poundage, but my challenge now is not just to acquire more size but to create a masterpiece.

Rep Range

That was then: Just as I understood that the basic lifts built the most muscle, I believed that heavy weights and lower reps—four or five per set—were the Holy Grail of mass. That approach definitely worked for several years; however, after a time I found that diminishing returns, progressively worse aches and pains and nagging injuries began to take the place of ongoing progress. That didn’t stop me, as I thought the solution lay in going even heavier. The stronger a muscle, the bigger a muscle, right? Well, right and wrong. It took me years to finally embrace the fact that muscles are made up of different fiber types that respond uniquely to varied rep ranges and that our anabolic machinery needs to be stimulated through more than just one pathway if reaching your genetic potential is the goal. Yes, get stronger, but do so in many rep ranges, not just one. But that was then.

This is now: These days my training regimen has just two consistent themes: intensity and variation. Those of you who have read my articles and columns in IRON MAN understand that I change workout protocols every week through my Power/Rep Range/Shock (P/RR/S) and Fiber Damage/Fiber Saturation (FD/FS) training programs. The changes include not only a wide variety of rep ranges but also lifting tempos, rests between sets and intensity techniques. Every week my goal is to attack the muscles differently and to force the central nervous system to deal with a unique form of stress.

Whereas in the beginning my training was fairly one-dimensional, now it is utterly dynamic. Heavy weights still play a role but are only one part of a multifaceted approach to hypertrophy. The system has rewarded me with steady gains in muscle, a lack of training-related injuries and a far more challenging and enjoyable method of working out.

Focus and Concentration

That was then: Without a doubt, since day one in the gym I was as serious as a heart attack and chock-full of drive and intensity. Even though I always used relatively strict form on most movements, however, I never really concentrated on the action of the muscle while it was working. My main goal was to move the weight from point A to point B under good control, but my mind was not necessarily focused on the mechanics of the exercise and how my muscles actually felt while contracting and lengthening. But that was then.

This is now: As the years go by, I can feel myself developing a better connection with each of my bodyparts. The old saying, “Put your mind into your muscle,” should not be taken lightly, as there is evidence that the more you think about the working muscle, the more fibers you can get to fire. Exhaust more fibers, and you’re on the road to better gains.

When I perform a set, not only do I drown out everything that’s going on around me, but I also make sure to feel my target muscle work through every inch of the movement—from the concentric to peak contraction to eccentric to stretch. I call it precision training, as I literally picture myself as a machine, kind of like the mechanics of a working clock. Every repetition is deliberate and precise, with my body locked into a position that enables me to zero in on exactly the area of a muscle that I wish to hit. I definitely feel that I am training on a higher level these days, and I have no doubt it’s a major contributor to my ability to continually improve my physique.

Not Getting Older, Getting Bigger

Unlike most sports and activities where age often hinders performance, bodybuilding lets you enjoy continual improvements well into your 50s and even 60s if you make the proper adjustments to your training and nutrition strategy. You need to work with nature and not against it. Listen to your body. Pay attention to the signals it gives you. Understand that building the body is a lifelong process that requires a more sophisticated and meticulous approach with each passing year. Never look at aging as a detriment, though, at least not when it comes to your physique. Consider that as time goes by you can continue to build more dense, thick and refined muscle, with more separation and striations—more “mature” muscle, so to speak.

* This article is exclusive to IronMagazine.com, reproduction in any form without prior consent is strictly prohibited.

Eric Broser is a NGA Judge and Professional Bodybuilder, Iron Man Magazine Monthly Columnist and aMuscular Development Magazine Monthly Columnist, Goliath Labs Athlete www.goliathlabs.com,Co-Author of Building the Perfect Beast…Naturally Online Training-Nutritional Consulting-Contest Prep Coaching, Author of P/RR/S Training Systems www.prrstraining.com. Eric is available for online training, dietary consulting, and contest preparation coaching.
Please visit www.prrstraining.com for more information.