Training legs for maximum gains with longevity in mind

Back in 2006 at my first bodybuilding competition, I had what were basically two toothpicks propping up my upper body.  I had chicken legs.  That’s not to say I didn’t train legs at all, I just trained them the wrong way, without much intensity.

Slightly exaggerated version of my old problem

Slightly exaggerated version of my old problem

A year later my legs were, according to the judges, ‘a weight class above my upper body’.  Every show since then, not a single judge has ever suggested my legs need to catch up, and some have suggested I take a break from training them to give my upper body a chance to catch up.  I’m no Tom Platz, but I have learned a few things about training legs that I’d like to share with you:

1.  Squat You need to squat to maximize the gains in muscle you want out of your legs.  Squat, and squat properly.  Get strong in the squat.  If you’re wondering if you’re strong enough, and you can’t squat 315 pounds for 20 good reps, you’re not strong enough so keep working.  Ladies, this means you too (not the 315×20 part), the shape most girls want can be found by putting in your time at the squat rack.  Check out this video of one of the smartest bodybuilders and coaches I know, John Meadows, demonstrating a good set of squats.  Notice his form: toes pointed slightly out, feet wider than shoulder width, and as he descends he is kicking his butt out.  You ALWAYS lead a squat with your butt and hips.  A simple check for your squat form is to see if your knees are tracking out past your toes – if as you squat your knees go out past your toes you’re not sitting back properly into the squat.  This style of squat will keep you healthy and pain free, able to squat for years to come

2. Train until you feel queasy. There have been very, very few leg workouts I’ve gone through in the past 8 years that haven’t made me a little sick to my stomach at some point.  Legs are special that way, you might not get that way with other bodyparts, but a good leg workout should be physically draining.  When someone comes to me complaining their legs aren’t growing, nine times out of ten it is a problem with their intensity.  Training legs is difficult, plain and simple.

Leg days should physically drain you

Leg days should physically drain you

3. Start your workout with hamstrings.   This is something I picked up from John Meadows about 3 years ago and it has been an amazing discovery.  By training your hamstring first, you are 1.) not neglecting them or giving them marginalized intensity like if they were last in the workout and 2.) properly warming up your knees before going on to squats or other quad-centric movements.  Typically I will start a workout with at least 4 intense sets of hamstring curls (lying, seated, or kneeling), and most times I go on to do 3 more sets with another hamstring exercise after this, before I even consider squatting or leg pressing.

4. Higher rep ranges are invaluable.  One of the biggest things that I did initially to grow my legs was to increase the number of reps I did on most exercises.  While other bodyparts (chest and back) have responded to lower reps for me (think 6 to 8 reps per set), I’ve seen the best results from higher reps on most leg exercises.  Leg press is one in particular I like to always do 15 to 20 reps minimum per set.  Don’t think this means you can drop the weight you’re using to some piddly amount – Tom Platz once said he liked heavy weight for high reps and while that may be counterintuitive, the truth of the matter is you are capable of pushing yourself much more than you probably are during leg workouts.  And let’s face it, a set of 20 reps for squats will put hair on your chest (if that’s what you’re going for) or at least meat on your thighs.

Tom Platz knows a thing or two about leg training

Tom Platz knows a thing or two about leg training

5. Pay attention to your knees.  I suffered through some very painful, very frustrating tendonitis in my knees early on because I refused to accept that sometimes you need to change your plans to match what your body is telling you.  If you are all psyched up to do a heavy squat day but you start warming up and your knees are on fire – STOP.  Drop the weight down, change your form, switch exercises and get more warmed up first.  You can’t make gains if you’re too injured to train at all so don’t take yourself out of the game when you could just adapt and keep going.  You can have a very intense leg workout without going extremely heavy when you need to give your joints a break.  Side note: don’t do heavy leg extensions.  Please.  This exercise should only be used to finish off your quads at the very end of the workout, with lighter weight for very high reps.  Many a knee tendon has been destroyed doing heavy leg extensions.

 

There you have it!  My top 5 rules for training legs to keep you making gains for many years to come.

Saving time and money with meal preparation

The results you see from working out are more tied to what you are eating than how you are training, plain and simple.  That’s not to say that you can get by with lackluster workouts, but even if you are the hardest training person your side of the Mississippi you’ll never make progress at the maximal rate without serious attention to your diet.  I would go so far as to say your results are 70% diet and 30% training.

Having a structured diet that doesn’t vary much day to day may be boring, but if you aren’t keeping your daily nutrition consistent you’ll never know what works.  This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy what you eat, and it doesn’t prohibit you from jumping off the plan for holidays, date nights, or the weekly trip to your favorite restaurant.  I have tried all sorts of meal frequencies and I’ve settled on 6 meals per day as ideal.  That’s 42 meals per week, so subtracting  3 meals per week for dining out (a high estimate for me), I have 39 meals to prepare each week.  Here is how that can be done quickly and cheaply:

Cook in bulk.  I typically have 2 meals per day with some sort of chicken and 1 meal per day with some kind of beef.  Once a week I will load up my aluminum baking trays with several pounds of chicken and beef, throw on some garlic, salt, pepper, and chili powder, and have a weeks worth of meat broiled in under an hour.  I do the same thing with a few trays of frozen vegetables and a big batch of rice in my rice cooker.  Would I cook each meal from scratch given unlimited time and money? Sure.  But that’s not practical for almost all of us.

bulkchicken

Love your Tupperware. Each morning I weigh/measure out my meals and put them in Tupperware while I’m frying my eggs for breakfast.  In 10 minutes, I have a warm breakfast to take to work, and 4 more meals packed and ready to just zap in the office microwave.  Traveling?  I don’t mind eating cold food but if that turns your stomach there are a plethora of microwaves at any hotel or gas station you stop at.

Protein shakes and yogurt are your friend.  The greek yogurt craze that has swept the nation in the past 6 years is great – with all the generic grocery store brands having their own version (sorry about your market share, Chobani, maybe your quality control should have been better), greek yogurt is a cheap, readily available source of protein.  A quick and delicious meal that takes NO preparation? 1 cup of greek yogurt, 1 scoop of chocolate protein powder, and 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, all mixed together – kind of like ice cream!  Protein powder is another versatile way to add no-preparation meals to your day.  A shake with 50 grams of whey protein blended with a half cup of oats and a tablespoon of coconut oil is a complete, balanced meal that is ready in less than 2 minutes.

proteinsludge

For those who say they don’t have time to set up and maintain a structured diet, let’s do the math quickly: 60 minutes/week bulk cooking + (10 minutes/morning breakfast and tupperware packing * 7 days) + (5 minutes/day mixing shakes and yogurt*7 days) = 165 minutes/week.  That’s less than 3 hours a week to have all of the food you need to achieve the results you want.  As for the cost?  I’ll share more tips on getting all of this done as cheaply as possible but having all the food you need for the day with you means less “oops I forgot my lunch today so I’ll just grab Chipoltle” moments and will decrease your weekly food expenses.

10 things I wish I had known: #1 Gaining muscle isn’t an excuse to gorge yourself

Starting out my lifting/bodybuilding career at 135 pounds soaking wet (and I’m not 5 feet tall either), I felt like I needed to gain weight constantly.  A lot of weight.  With the help of various bodybuilding message boards, I found the ‘answer’ to my problems: massive, unbridled, unrestricted bulking.  Various online gurus prescribed a see-food diet – if it had protein in it, eat it.  Stuff yourself to the point of feeling sick, and do this 6 to 8 times a day.

epicmealtime

How I tried to approach my offseason in the past

So, I embarked on my gluttonous journey to permanently leave my skinny genetics in the dust.  An example of my my daily diet during one of these bulking phases would be:

 

Meal 1: 80g  of whey isolate, 80g of powdered carbohydrates, 1 double protein bagel, 1 insulin induced coma that no amount of coffee could revive me from

Meal 2: 1 pound of chicken breast, 1 cup of apple juice, the biggest bowl of rice I could choke down

Meal 3: 80g of whey isolate, 4 tablespoons of olive oil (can’t go catabolic during class, right?)

Meal 4: 1 pound of ground beef

Meal 5: 80g of whey isolate, 100g powdered carbohydrates

Meal 6: Footlong ham, turkey, and cheese sub with plenty of southwest mayo (don’t worry, it was whole wheat bread)

Meal 7: 1 pound of ground beef, 1 legendary case of indigestion

Then, once or twice a week I would eat 4 or 5 double cheeseburgers from Wendy’s – I threw out half of the buns though!

Now, did I gain a lot weight like I wanted to? You bet I did.  Did I gain an unnecessarily large amount of body fat that was then miserable to diet away a few months later? Of course.  Along with the body fat, I got some great high blood pressure and a fantastic moon-face:

All those Wendy's cheeseburgers did wonders for my blood pressure

All of those Wendy’s cheeseburgers did wonders for my blood pressure

Luckily I grew out of this phase (not literally), and learned through trial and error that all of the old timers preaching ‘clean’ offseasons were in fact right.  Does this mean you should be starving and barely eating more during your quest to gain muscle than you would eat to prepare for a contest? Of course not.  I think the following set of guidelines is a good general philosophy for making sure you are maximizing the hypertrophy you are seeking while keeping health in check and avoiding being mistaken as a D1 lineman in training:

  • Don’t lose sight of all of your separation.  You should be able to see the outline of your abs at all times (for the guys), and you shouldn’t be going up 4 or 6 pants sizes in the waist (for guys and girls).
  • Don’t overeat protein.  Obviously don’t overeat carbohydrates and fats either, but I see a lot of people eating as much protein as they want like it doesn’t count.  It does, and it can make you gain body fat just like carbs and fats.  This will help your digestion tremendously too.
  • Stick to a plan.  You have a meal plan for your contest diet, do the same for your offseason.  Weigh and measure your foods, that way if things get out of hand you can make calculated changes.
  • You can’t gain 10 pounds of muscle in a month so don’t try to gain 10 pounds in a month.  If you’re gaining more than 2 or 3 pounds a month, you’re most likely overdoing things.
  • If you start to have trouble with your appetite and it’s tough to get food down, STOP.  Take a few weeks and do a mini-diet.  This will fix the appetite issues, and improve your insulin sensitivity.  Insulin sensitivity is a topic for another post, but know that the more body fat you gain, the less efficient your body will be at handling the nutrients you are shoveling in.

Hopefully these guidelines will help in your quest to gain muscle while keeping you from falling prey to the bloated puffer fish look!

Intro and a leg workout

So my name is Luke Cuculis, and the sport of bodybuilding and physique enhancement have been a part of my life for close to a decade, starting when I wanted to gain weight for football at age 14.  Since then I’ve been in constant pursuit of becoming bigger and stronger – and I’ve gone about these goals in some productive ways, and some not so productive ways.

I want to start this blog as a way to put down into words, in an accessible format, all of the methods of dieting, training, and generally living a fitness-minded lifestyle that I have experimented with in the past, present and continue to try in the future.  Name a bodybuilding diet/workout trend or fad (with the exception of Crossfit – that word isn’t allowed in my house) and I’ve probably tried it.

All of the experimenting I’ve done on myself, as I said, has run the gamut in terms of results.  I’ve gotten really fat, way too thin, and very injured – but (there have been successes!) I’ve won some contests in spite of all the setbacks.  Here is a picture of me before my first contest ever when I was 16:
age16And here is a picture from my last contest (in the middle), which was in 2013 at 23 years old.  In that time I’ve managed to jump up 4 weight classes, from competing in the high 130s to low 190s.

 

age23One of the things I’ve put more emphasis on the past few years is longevity.  I want to be training and looking my best well into my golden years, and this is a theme that will pervade through a lot of my posts, both in terms of training and dieting/lifestyle.

To round things out for this first post, I’d like to include a leg workout I recently completed for anyone to try out or draw some ideas from in their own training.  I’ll be going into more detail on my philosophy regarding leg training in a later post so stay tuned!

Workout

Warm up with 2 sets of seated leg curls, doing 15 to 20 reps to get blood circulating in the hamstrings.

Then launch into working sets – I simply do sets of 10, increasing the weight each set by 10 pounds until I get to a set I can’t do 10 reps.  As soon as I fail, I drop the weight to about 60% of this max and go to failure once more.  Once I’ve failed here I do as many partial reps out of the top of the movement as possible.

After the seated curls I move on to a kneeling leg curl and pick a weight I can do for 12 reps.  I really focus on a slow, controlled negative here.  The tempo of the reps is about 1 second on the contraction, a 2 second hold at the top, and then a 3 second negative.  I do 4 sets total, for each leg.

Now I move on to barbell squats.  I always take my time warming up and start with 135, then 185, 225, and then 315 as ‘warm ups’.  I do 6 reps per set here.  Then the working sets start, also at 6 reps per set.  Typically I add 20 pounds per set, ending at around 405 for my final set of 6.  After I catch my breath I strip the bar back down to 225 and try to break my record for reps here – I’m in the mid 2os right now.

Despite being completely zombified at this point, I like to further isolate quads so I go to a machine/hack squat and do 3 sets of 15 reps.  My stance is very narrow, with my feet almost together and the reps are very slow with 3 second negatives.

To finish off the workout I do 2 sets of leg extensions – 30 reps per set with a hard squeeze at the top of each.