When I got in last night, I sat down on the sofa…and did not get up again. So depleted of energy was my body that I half-sat half-lay in a state of near comatose until, eventually, I summoned up the testicular fortitude to turn on my Xbox…before falling asleep.
What marathon of physical exertion had I endured, you ask? Well, I had been to the gym for a couple of hours. That is all. But please, allow me to start at the beginning.
When I walked into the gym last week, I bumped into my old school friend Ollie Baird. Now, Ollie is not a little guy. As a personal trainer on a cruise ship, a rugby player and ex-bouncer, Ollie is around 105kg of functional muscle mass and fitness know-how.
At his strongest, Ollie could close-grip bench 155kg, deadlift 235kg, back squat 210kg for sets of 5, front squat 140kg for sets of 3, clean and jerk 132.5kg and perform pull-ups body with 45kg extra strapped around his waist.
Seeing as we were training the same body parts that day, Ollie invited me to join him for his routine. Foolishly, I accepted…
That was about nine days ago. Since then, I have squeezed, grimaced and roared my way through around half a dozen torturous sessions, which have made me realise that, much as I have been harking on about going “back to the gym for real” for the last million years, I simply haven’t been trying as hard as I could or should be.
I have not been paying the iron price. Luckily, we quickly put an end to that…
Ollie’s no-nonsense approach to well-rounded and intelligent gym sessions reminded me how much work you can get done if you put your mind to it. Supersets, megasets, ULTRA-SETS! By stacking up exercises and working both agonist and antagonist combinations of muscle groups, we could pile on the pressure and move an enormous amount of weight in a very short period of time.
Ten sets of ten squats at 100kg, followed by ten sets of ten deadlifts at 100kg. That alone is 20 metric tons of iron shifted in under an hour – and that’s a lot for a normal human body to endure! Not only did exercising with that kind of intensity leave my body trembling and incapable of even making a fist, the total exhaustion afterwards also reminded me of the importance of eating regularly, rather than “whenever I remember”.
Furthermore, having a training partner – or at least somebody to spot you on big exercises – makes an overwhelming amount of difference when it comes to pushing yourself. I knew this already but, having been training on my own for so long now, I had forgotten what it was like to put every last ounce of power into a lift, without fear of dropping a bar on myself. Again.
By the time Ollie left the country to fly to Australia and resume his job aboard the cruise ship, I was entirely physically exhausted. The last I heard from him, he was in a cafe in Hong Kong, eating a breakfast of steak and eggs!
In brief, here is a rough example of the sessions we endured:
Working for leg strength with Ollie is no walk in the park. You also won’t be capable of walking in the park afterwards, either! Because your legs will hurt to much… It’s a joke, get it? If you’d like it explaining further, please just write in the comment box and I shall wax lyrical on the Philosophy of Humour.
After a thorough movement-based warm-up, we started with squats. Five sets of five, each set immediately followed by light snatches. With Ollie’s guidance, I managed to squat 140kg for two reps for the first time in my life, which was a surprise given my recent lack of squatting! It just goes to show what good form and a gym partner will do for you.
Ollie then proceeded to bash out a couple at 170kg, which was a real sight to behold! That said, compared to his best – five reps at 210kg – even that was frustrating for the big guy, who is suffering through the rehab of a torn hamstring.
Next we moved onto five sets of five heavy deadlifts, though without chalk I didn’t manage a set at more than 140kg. I also suffered a little with the torn and raw skin on my hands, from the week’s climbing in London. Luckily, Ollie did notice a few flaws in my technique that, despite initially reducing my strength, quickly made deadlifting feel both safer and more realistic as a regular movement.
Eventually, we finished with super-heavy leg presses, which we supersetted with calf raises. With 20 plates on the machine (making 400kg before the weight of the rack), we were approaching half a metric ton of weight by the end, which was a true nightmare of pain and one that left me hobbling for a few days afterwards.
Chest, Back and Arms
As with almost everything we did in the gym, we made supersets out of chest and back exercises. This helped get more work done in shorter periods of time and, depending on whether you train agonist or antagonist muscle groups, bring all kinds of other benefits too.
We started with five sets of ten incline dumbbell presses, each followed by a set of ten seated cable rows. These are two big movements and the combined exercise is utterly exhausting. Still, by the end I was using 35kg dumbbells and performing full sets with 70kg on the row. Both these paled compared to Ollie’s gargantuan weights, but I was happy with my performance.
We then moved on to five sets of between six and ten reps of flat bench presses, each immediately followed by a set of 12 pull-ups. Again, these are big movements that involve activating a lot of muscle mass. This time, however, we were using a different plane of motion for the back work – by pulling downwards instead of inwards.
Having completed two compound movements for both chest and back, we moved on to an Überset for the triceps and biceps. Starting with 25 triceps dips, we’d move straight to ten triceps pull-downs, then to 10 straight-bar biceps curls and finally ten hammer curls, or seated dumbell curls. This, with slight variations, we repeated ten times – to a total of 250 triceps dips!
Finally, just to add to the pain, we grabbed a bench and performed sets of spider curls – moving from the bench to a squat position when necessary, to make the exercise slightly easier and, therefore, force out more reps and up the agony.
Ollie trains legs twice a week; once for brute strength and once for manly size! The size day is similar to the strength day, but with lighter loads and twice the volume of work. We started with five sets of five front squats (these are easier on the back and place more emphasis on the quads).
As somebody who has never been very good at front squats, I was surprised to be capable of lifting 75kg for these sets, though I did practically collapse at the end. Ollie, of course, thrashed through ten sets at 100kg!
Then it was back onto deadlifts, this time ten sets of ten from a deficit (standing on a box). Although we were only lifting 100kg, I cut back on the reps to focus on getting my form correct. Ollie noticed a few things I was doing badly and, when lifting from a deficit, it’s especially important to get everything perfect.
After five more killer leg press/calf raise sets, it was onto step-up box lunges, which are the epitome of sheer agony. By the time I left the gym, I couldn’t stand upright without my right leg shaking uncontrollably!
In terms of gym workouts, shoulders equate to pain. I know I’ve said this about just about every body part so far but, seriously, shoulders are sheer anguish.
For a big, compound movement, we chose the seated shoulder press. At only 75kg of body weight, I struggled with this but, managed to force out five sets of between five and ten reps. For the first session, we sat on the ground and lifted a strong man log, which was beyond difficult. For the second session, therefore, we sat on a box and used a standard bar, more heavily laden. I found that slightly easier, having my legs beneath me instead of thrust out in front.
After the big movement, it was time for the most horrible of shoulder sets, consisting of reverse shoulder flys, lateral shoulder raises, dumbbell shoulder presses and vertical shoulder raises. Of all the sets I perform at the gym, even lunges don’t compare to the sheer torture of this set.
And that, friends, was about it.