Each month I am privileged to speak with 8-Time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney for his column in Muscular Development. This is a real honor for me, as he was the reigning Mr. Olympia when I first started reading the magazines in the fall of 1987 and became a fan of the sport. It's also significant that the very first Mr. Olympia contest I attended was the 1991 edition in Orlando, Florida, where I watched TotaLee Awesome defend his title one last time against a rising star from England named Dorian Yates. Lee announced his retirement at the end of the night, going out on top at only 31 years old.
One very surprising fact about Lee is that at 53 years old, he has no injuries, not even any nagging aches or pains. For a casual lifter that wouldn't be so impressive, but it's unheard of these days for almost all pro bodybuilders. I'm a full ten years younger and not even a pro, and my list of injuries includes arthritis in both shoulders, a bone spur and nearly full loss of cartilage in the left shoulder, a full tear of the right triceps, chronic lower back trouble that merely varies in pain levels, tendonitis in the elbows, and past partial tears of my right pec, a calf, and a hamstring. Why am I so banged up, and this great champion who trained hard enough to hold off excellent challengers like Rich Gaspari, Lee Labrada, Mike Christian, Gary Strydom, Shawn Ray and Vince Taylor has no lingering injuries or pain?
The answer lies in Lee's famous quote: "Stimulate, don't annihilate!"
Haney trained hard, but more importantly, he trained smart. He never used as much weight in training as he could have, because he always understood the risk/benefit ratio. When we spoke about leg training last time, he mentioned that he squatted last in the workout so that he wouldn't need as much weight. That saved his spine from the pressure of constantly being crushed by 400-500 pounds or more, which he was more than capable of using. Instead, he stuck with 315 and still built his legs, but saved his back. Meanwhile, the only other 8-Time Mr. Olympia, Ronnie Coleman was known for squatting up to 800 pounds - and he's had not one but three spinal surgeries over the last couple years and still needs at least one more. My own back problems all stem from heavy squats. I always did them first, and always went as heavy as I possibly could.
We talked about shoulder training last night. Lee's shoulders were massive. I asked him how heavy he used to go on seated dumbbell presses. His surprising reply? 60's, rarely he might have gone as heavy as 70's. For a split second, I confess to a smug satisfaction. I've gone as heavy as 140's on those, and still routinely handle anywhere from 105's to 120's. Then I mentally slapped myself. Dumb-ass! That's why your shoulders are trashed, and his aren't! Lee believed in using good form and a smooth rep cadence that he often describes as a 'checkmark.' The lifting portion of the rep is ballistic, but the negative is always controlled. Most importantly, he was always using a weight he could not only lift without assistance, but smoothly and without getting stuck and struggling. Many times I used weights on presses that I couldn't even get one good rep with unless a spotter was helping. I trained much heavier than I should have, and I paid, and am still paying, the price.
I could go on and on with more examples of how 'light' Lee Haney trained, but the point is that he very wisely chose to train with just enough weight to get the job done, and no more. Heavy weights do have a place - but only up to a point. If you are putting just as much stress on your joints and connective tissues as you are your muscles, eventually you will find yourself injured or at the very least, with a lot of nagging aches and pains that never go away; and that will also come to limit what you can and can't do in the gym.
My wife has made the observation that she doesn't think I can put any more size on, simply because all my injuries make it impossible for me to train as heavy as I used to in many exercises. She wasn't completely off base with that. But the more accurate way of putting it is not that I am limited by having to train lighter, but my limitations are the direct result of going too heavy for many years when I should have gone lighter. I let my ego get the best of me.
We tend to think in terms of more is better, and getting stronger does go hand in hand with getting bigger - up to a point. We all need to figure out what that line is for us, and avoid overstepping it.
It's too late for me in that aspect, but it's not too late for many of you reading this. The next time you choose a weight, ask yourself:
"Will this stimulate, or will this annihilate?"