Q: Hi Denis,
I saw that you competed in the Arnold Amateur and the Canadian National Natural Physique Championships, winning the Canadian one.
How did it feel to compete again? Did you do anything different for these competitions than before? When do you plan to compete again?
. . . Todd Rickler
Competing after two years away from the stage was strange for me because I had never taken a break before, and I must admit that I was a bit worried about my condition before the contest. Whenever I get ready for a show, I look at the photographs of myself on the wall at my gym and tell myself: "This is the guy I have to beat!" That’s what bodybuilding really is: surpassing yourself and yourself alone. Although you will be compared to others onstage, you can only make the most of your own attributes. So there I was, looking at my pictures and marveling at the condition I was able to attain in 2006. Then I looked at myself in the mirror and wondered whether I would be able to get into better shape or not. I’m a highly competitive guy, and although I usually succeed in what I do, I’m never completely satisfied until I see the end result of my efforts. I knew I would come in bigger, but would I come in better condition?
This year is going to be special for me because I had a guest posing this past November (and thus had to be in condition) and then did two contests in a row this spring, the Arnold Amateur and the Canadian Natural Physique Championships. I have to stay in shape right now because I have another guest posing coming up in May and I might get involved in some photo shoots. Only after this will I have a short break before the IFBB World Championships at the end of the year. So, as you can see, this is going to be a very long year for me. However, being on a diet is easy for me, and I like to see myself in condition so it’s not going to be that painful (at least in my mind!).
I really enjoyed my comeback: the feeling of being backstage, the thrill, meeting new people, and bumping into old friends. Bodybuilding is a small world and it is fun to compare notes and stay in contact with the people you meet over time. For example, doing the Canadian Natural Physique Championships gave me the chance to meet up again with my 2006 rival, John Raposo (in photo right). John exemplifies the kind of man and athlete for whom I have the highest respect. He introduced me to his family, we chatted and had some fun backstage, and then we both won our respective categories again. Congratulations on your win, John, and I’ll be more than glad if I’m still in the shape you’re in when I hit my own 50s!
The reason why I took a break from competition is that once you’re competing at an international level, it gets harder to place well (especially if you’re a lifetime drug-free athlete and other people are willing to do anything to win). It’s even more important to pay attention to details and work on every weak point your body seems to present onstage. In my case, what I needed in order to be competitive against the top five in the world was more upper body mass, especially in the arms, back and shoulders. After 15 years of training, it takes time to see significant improvements and that was too much to expect to achieve in just six months, so I took two years off. (Since it takes six months just to get back into shape for a contest, one has to factor that time into one's off-season training.) Although I was reticent at first because I love being onstage, it turned out to be a very wise decision. I really feel my physique is getting fuller and better proportioned. Below is a little montage I did where you can see me at my three national-level wins (2005, 2006 and 2009). I think you’ll agree that the increase in muscle density in my upper body is quite noticeable.
2005, 2006, 2009
My main concern right now is the condition I will be able to maintain until the world championships, mostly in terms of muscle mass. As a natural athlete, it is hard enough to maintain lean bodyweight while preparing for a contest; it’s even harder to maintain it over an extended period of time. When you’re "clean," there are no short cuts. You need to be very conscientious and meticulous in your planning. Saving my energies and being at my best for the world championships is my main goal this year. I wasn’t really worried about winning my class at the Canadian Natural Physique Championships and I did the Arnold Amateur just for the fun of it, so I didn’t go overboard for these two contests. I was going to see the Arnold Classic pro contest with a couple of friends anyway, so being two weeks short from my contest shape for the Canadian Natural Physique Championships (and being entitled to compete at that level), I said "Why not step onstage?" (If I remember correctly, I think Doug Schneider was the one who got me into this in the first place.) That’s why, even though I still placed second at the Arnold Amateur, I simply wasn’t "hard" enough and didn’t win my class there. The Arnold also gave me another chance to meet and talk to incredible people such as my idol Frank Zane (in photo right). That kind of experience has no price.
Even at the Nationals, I knew I wasn’t at my peak (about 1-2 weeks from it) because, like I said, this is going to be a busy year for me and I want to do well and I sure didn’t want to exhaust myself. Nevertheless, since I had the opportunity, I allowed myself some leeway to try different things in my preparation; here are some examples:
Usually I don’t like to prescribe high-volume routines because I believe quality is always superior to quantity. The only time I permit myself to increase the volume of my training is when I prepare for a contest and want to get more shredded. In order to do that, I took some ideas from Steve Holman, Vince Gironda and Charles Poliquin and created a new program. (I love to work my mind and manipulate conceptual ideas). To sum it up, I used a T/NT (traumatic/non-traumatic) approach combining techniques like unilateral, bilateral and alternated sets, as well as strategies like 5x5s and 10x10s, all mixed up in a two-week, cycled program of either bodyweight, dumbbell or cable exercises. We also trained each body part twice a day, the morning workout being the traumatic one and the evening being some sort of a feeder workout. Again, when you don’t use drugs, you have to carefully cycle your workouts when designing an integrated program that combines intensity and volume, because you don’t want to overtrain and lose preciously earned muscle. I can say, though, that this one worked amazingly. I have a very physical job (kinesitherapy), I was on a strict diet, and I was working out 10 times a week (for 45-60 minutes each workout) and still the weight increased steadily until the final week. Everything went as I planned and, in fact, it worked so well it was the first time I was worried about making my weight class. Of course, I credit some part of that success to my supplementation plan, because even with all that physical stress I imposed to my body, I didn’t get sick the whole winter (remember I live in Quebec!). That proves that even if you don’t use drugs, you can achieve amazing things if you plan everything carefully.
Indirect and frequent training
To improve my arms, I used what I like to call indirect training. Remember that the body adapts specifically to the mechanical stimulus (stress) that is put on it. That means that if you train a certain body part more often, the body will react and increase its muscle size accordingly. This will only happen, though, if recovery time is allowed. To do this, I specifically selected my exercises so that every day I would hit my arms indirectly even if I was focusing on another body part that day. That was in addition to the actual "arm day" that was at the end of each week (Friday). This method seemed to work pretty well, as my arms are a lot fuller than they used to be and, for the first time in my life, I was finally getting attention because of my arms rather than my legs. It’s always a delight when you are complimented on a body part. Here's a funny little story about that: While I was at the Arnold Expo, I happened to run into a great guy, Roland Kickinger (in photo right), the guy they chose to play Arnold in the movie See Arnold Run, and the first thing he said to me when I shook his hand was, "Nice set of guns; I like that!" So I guess I’m not the only one who noticed the change.
I had to find ways to improve the overall structure of my upper body (particularly the scapular region). I love gymnastics; I personally think it’s the discipline that exemplifies best the overall ability of the musculoskeletal system. When I want a result, I look at the people who seem to get that result and try to discover some tips I could use. So, last year I was looking at the Olympic gymnasts and was amazed by the incredible density of their upper bodies. I asked myself what might a gymnast do to get an upper body like that and the answer was simple: bodyweight movements. There is truth in the old saying "the body becomes its function" as it’s only logical that if you constantly force the body to stabilize the shoulder joint while hanging onto a bar it will force it to adapt and overdevelop all the muscles surrounding the upper limb. For a gymnast that may mean more ability, but to my ears that meant a wider "V" taper and bigger arms. I’ve always known the value of bodyweight exercises and used them a lot in my workouts, but I never really made them the core of one of my programs. Boy, did it work! You couldn’t believe the pumps we were getting while training; I felt like there was not enough space left for my humeral bone in my shoulder joint. It completely changed the way my upper body looks and all the feedback I got this year was referring to my unmatched proportions. I really think bodyweight moves are underrated and should be used more often by bodybuilders.
Change in training partner
My girlfriend Marie-Pier Blais (in photo right) is my actual training partner (yes, a girl!), and she is just unbelievable. Marie-Pier is an ex-sprinter and she likes challenges. She followed me in everything I did, as she was preparing for the Nationals too (as a figure competitor) and needed to improve her taper. I’ve never seen a girl train like her; she was so determined and intense, her physique was changing every week. Training with someone who forces you to surpass yourself is the best motivation a bodybuilder can have when preparing for a contest. Remember when I said I’m a competitive kind of guy? Well, seeing her getting in condition so quickly made me push even harder in order to catch up. I was so impressed; she drove me like nobody had done before. Think of it. On a particular day, we would get up early in the morning and go to the gym to perform 10 sets of 10 of either pull-ups, chin-ups, dips, push-ups, inverted rows and/or inverted push-ups (straight upside-down on your hands). My girlfriend didn’t really have a great upper body when I met her, but I can assure you that she had the best back pose in the whole line-up at the Nationals and it didn’t surprise me that she had won the overall at her first show a few months before. I’m sure you can count on one hand the women who can actually chin themselves a hundred times (and I do mean real chins and pulls) three times a week on a restricted diet. I have no choice but to credit her with the motivation she gave me for this contest preparation.
Frequent massage therapy
My girlfriend and I both have master degrees in kinesiology-kinesitherapy. That’s great because we can take care of each other to make sure training conditions and recovery are optimal. She treated me with massage therapy on a weekly basis all the way to the contest and it was the first time, even with the very high volume and intensity of our training routine, that I didn’t have all the little discomforts I usually have when preparing for a contest. That’s incredible because, for me, staying healthy is as important as, if not more than, competing itself. This aspect, often forgotten, is of prime concern, because only when the body mechanics are functional can the training and results be optimal. I strongly recommend that any serious bodybuilder get some kind of massage therapy at least on a monthly basis.
One particular thing I tried this time was to keep cardio to the minimum. I attended a seminar by Charles Poliquin and he repeatedly said that he never gives cardio to any of his clients and yet they all seem to be in condition (according to his words). When you think about it, it’s a fact that bodybuilders rarely do cardio for the upper body and they still get ripped in those areas, so why not try the same for the lower body and only do short but more frequent workouts? So I gave it a try. To be honest, that one didn’t really pay off, and everybody told me that my legs (which are supposed to be my strong point) were softer than usual at the Arnold and that I would have won if I had been in better condition. After the Arnold, I thought about it for a while, and although I must admit that my legs looked fuller than usual, they looked kind of engorged, weren’t as vascular, and the skin wasn’t as thin as it used to be in my previous contests (when I was doing cardio).
I remembered the functional adaptation process and did the same thing I did with the gymnasts and asked myself: "What kind of athlete’s leg development would I like to have?" Have you ever seen a cyclist’s legs? I think that regular cardio offers many advantages: it works the cardiovascular system to a greater extent than weight training alone; it helps improve circulation and gets rid of any edema in the lower limbs; and it increases the action of the capillaries, giving you big, striated and vascular legs. This is what I did the last time at the world championships in 2006 and I was said to have the best set of legs in the line-up. After the Arnold I had a two-week window until the Canadian Natural Physique Championships, so I got back on the cycle machine for just 30 minutes for 10 days and the difference was astonishing. Want to know something else? I’ve been doing cardio five days a week since (for only 15 minutes), and my legs are even better as I’m writing this than they were at both shows. What I always knew but now more clearly realize is that being cut is one thing, but being cut and ready for a bodybuilding contest is something else.
In my last article, I pointed out that bodybuilding is more an art than a sport – it is the only discipline in which how you look actually counts. Athletes and bodybuilders are apples and oranges; so if you’re a bodybuilder, I say stick with the cardio if you want to beat everyone in the leg department, period.
I hope this article is interesting and that it gives you some worthwhile tips. I think the take-home message here is that there are no bad experiences, just experiences! Just remember the old saying: live and learn.
Good luck in your own success!
. . . Denis Pedneault, Canadian Champion 2005, 2006