I’ve been moving iron since the Eighties. But to look at me you wouldn’t know it. You might even think, Nah, this beanpole’s never lifted anything heavier than a dictionary. “Do you work out?” It’s the question every guy who takes his fitness seriously dreads hearing. But I’m open to it. I’ve heard it. And who knows when I’ll hear it again?
There’s not much I haven’t tried over the years to up the pressure on my shirtsleeves. Except . . . I’ve never had a one-on-one session with an out-and-out pro. Never had anyone who knows his stuff backwards walk me through a workout, spotting and correcting errors while giving plateau-busting pointers. Until now.
Build cage-ready muscle with Australian UFC star Robert Whittaker
It’s a Tuesday morning and I’m shaking the enormous hand of Stefan Ianev, a former Australian natural bodybuilding champion. Based at the Clean Health Fitness Institute on Sydney’s north shore, Ianev specialises in making guys look better with their shirt off.
It’s a perfectly valid goal, says Ianev, who came here from Bulgaria when he was eight and retains a slight accent. With his imposing build and close-cropped haircut, he brings to mind Ivan Drago, except Ianev is primed to help rather than destroy.
Ianev’s devised a workout [see “Showtime Muscle”] that will, in quick time, add lean beef to any guy’s frame. It’s also targeted: it’s going after those muscles offering maximum visual impact.
For years, experts thought that by training legs with big moves like the squat you triggered a systemic release of anabolic hormones that would grow your entire body. “We know now that’s a myth,” says Ianev.
In a recent study in the Journal of Applied Physiology participants trained one arm on its own and the other arm in identical fashion the next day straight after a legs workout. Researchers expected to find that the arm trained with legs would grow more during the 15-week trial, but in fact there was no difference.
“The growth process is intrinsic to the muscle cells and the anabolic response from training legs won’t help you elsewhere, at least in the short term,” says Ianev.
So in pursuit of that beach body we’re going to focus on chest, shoulders, back and arms. To the benches!
Ianev gives me the once-over. “Like me,” he says, “you have long arms. The body works this out and tends to recruit the more proximal muscles because it’s more efficient.”
Translation: my chest and back do most of the work when I’m shifting iron, and consequently they’re better developed than my linguini limbs.
“You and me, we actually need to do more arm work,” explains Ianev. “We’ve got to isolate those long levers.”
Ianev still wants me benching, though, and straight way he’s spotting errors in my technique. For starters the grip I’m using – just beyond shoulder-width – is too narrow and putting excessive pressure on my shoulders, he says.
“Take those elbows out to maximise pectoral recruitment,” he instructs, nudging my hands an extra 15cm apart. “Now retract the scapula and relax.”
I’m also bringing down the bar too far, apparently. Rather than kissing the body it should stop a few centimetres short – at nipple level. “Any further than that, you’re overstretching the shoulder ligaments.”
Locking out at the top of the movement is banned. “Think Arnie: he stops short to maintain tension in the chest. Also, squeeze the bar inwards on ascent.”
His suggestions deliver. I’m soon smoothly handling more weight than I have in years. “Perfect,” Ianev says. “That’s a great bench.”
Escape the slow lane
Ianev’s frown returns when he sees my form at the dip station. “Can you go a fraction lower?” he asks. “And notice at the top how your body’s turning a little bit? Stop a little shorter and you’ll be able to maintain a better groove as well as constant tension in the triceps.”
And watch your tempo, he warns – and now he’s talking about all movements. Every mug knows you can lift too fast. But too slow is wrong, too, Ianev says. “Slow down the movement too much and you’re actually making your body do less work because force is mass times acceleration. Slow it down only as much as required to maintain control of the muscle. That’s the trick.”
Fear of failure
I’m nearing the end of my first set of dumbbell curls when Ianev abruptly pulls me up.
“That’s enough,” he says.
Reckon I had two more in me, I say.
Exactly, he counters. Go to failure only on your last set for each exercise, he says. “You will tank otherwise. Go to failure too soon and your capacity to amass enough volume – hypertrophy being closely correlated to how much work you do – will collapse. You have to manage fatigue through your workout.”
When training shoulders, a lot of guys choose exercises that target the front of the muscle, which has already copped a beating from benching, says Ianev. Isolating your medial delts with wide-grip upright rows, on the other hand, is your ticket to a V-shape.
Ianev widens my grip to the point where I can’t raise the bar above my sternum – which is precisely where the movement should end when targeting the medial delt, he explains.
Ianev notices I’m pausing – effectively resting – at the bottom of the movement, again cutting time under tension. Keep everything controlled but continuous, he urges.
Two’s a crowd
What do you like for back? Ianev asks.
Wrong again. “When it comes to back, chins have nothing on rows,” he says. The guys with the biggest backs are rowing fiends. Chins are supplementary.
Ianev’s favourite row? The single-arm version. “There’s something called bi-lateral deficit,” he says. “It means the sum of two limbs working independently exceeds what you can do with two limbs working together.” So if you can barbell-row 140kg, you’d think your single-arm row max would be 70kg, right? But, no. More likely you could do 80 or 85kg. “You also get a greater range of motion than you do with the barbell row – and it’s safer.”
When I start rowing, Ianev again sees issues. He wants the weight brought more into the hip, as well as a full retraction of the scapula – a dramatic squeeze at the top.
“My last tip has to do with the command you run from your brain,” he says. “If you think ‘LIFT!’, your body will use as many muscles as it can to get the weight from A to B.
“But if you think “CONTRACT!”, your body will focus specifically on recruiting the muscle you’re working. So yes, you want to be explosive. But the command is, CONTRACT!”
This program from Ianev will stack transformative muscle onto your whole body, especially your upper torso
WHAT TO DO
Perform both Workout A and Workout B twice a week. For the first exercise for each body part, do one warm-up set, two transition sets and one heavy set to failure. For subsequent exercises, scrap the warm-up set. The rep range is 8-12 for all sets except the warm-up set, where you might do 15-20 reps. Rest periods are 45-60secs.
CHEST, BACK, LEGS
1/ BARBELL BENCH PRESS
Lie on a bench and grip the bar at one-and-a-half shoulder-width. Lower to just above mid-chest and then, squeezing the bar inwards, push back up without locking out at the top.
2/ INCLINE BARBELL BENCH PRESS
Set the bench at 45 degrees and perform as per instructions for the flat bench press.
3/ DUMBBELL FLYS
Lie on a bench with a dumbbell held at extension in each hand. Flex your pecs and draw the weights out and down, keeping elbows slightly bent, then reverse the move back to the start.
1/ SINGLE-ARM DUMBBELL ROWS
Bend at the waist and place your left hand on the bench. Reach down and grab a heavy dumbbell with a thumb-less grip, then squeeze your right lat and draw the weight up towards your hip. Lower. Repeat with other arm.
2/ WIDE GRIP PULL-UPs
Jump up and grab the bar in both hands, palms facing out. Pull back your shoulders and raise yourself until your chin clears the bar. Lower slowly. Add load via a weighted vest when 12 reps becomes easy.
1/ BACK SQUAT
Un-rack the barbell onto the back of your shoulders. Brace your core, push out your bum and bend your knees until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Drive back up.
SHOULDERS, BICEPS AND TRICEPS
1/ WIDE-GRIP UPRIGHT ROWS
Stand tall holding a barbell at thigh height. Flare your elbows and pull the weight up to your sternum. Lower.
2/ LATERAL RAISES
Stand holding two light dumbbells at your sides. Keeping your elbows slightly bent, raise the weights up and out until they’re at shoulder height. Pause, tilt the weights as though pouring from a jug, then lower.
1/ STANDING ALTERNATE DUMBBELL CURLS
Hold the weights at your sides with a neutral grip. One at a time, curl the weight, turning your arm clockwise as you go so your palm finishes facing in.
2/ LYING INCLINE CURLS
Lie back on a bench set to 60 degrees while holding a light dumbbell in each hand with a neutral grip. Keeping your elbows tucked, curl the weights one at a time to your shoulder, turning as you go, as above.
Gripping a dip station with both hands, lift your weight until your feet are off the floor. Bend at the elbows and lower your body until your upper arms are parallel with the floor. Drive back up.
2/ OVERHEAD TRICEPS EXTENSION
Hold a dumbbell so your hands touch the back of your head while the weight hangs behind your neck. Now extend your elbows until the weight is above your head. Lower.