Altered states – Training – Gunter Schlierkamp and trainer Charles Glass – Interview
In finishing fifth at the 2002 Mr. Olympia and then beating Ronnie Coleman three weeks later at the GNC Show of Strength, Gunter Schlierkamp orchestrated one the most sensational story lines in the history of bodybuilding. Here’s the inside scoop on how the German giant transformed his physique from also-ran to Mr. Olympia contender.
I’m floored by the intensity. I’d seen Gunter Schlierkamp lift many times in the ’90s and, although he hoisted heavier weights than most mortals, his workouts were never notable for their zeal. That’s why I’m so unprepared for the unbridled ferocity Charles Glass brings to Schlierkamp’s training. Witnessing the German behemoth exploring his limits makes my brow sweat and my muscles ache. FAMILY NESS “The Center for Family Fitness” reads the sun-bleached sign. Nestled among foothills north of Los Angeles, the Santa Clarita Athletic Club is just off a freeway on a corner more appropriate for a gas station. Outside, it resembles a strip mall. Inside, a maze of hallways meanders to saunas, a pool, a daycare center and other low-impact activity rooms. It’s the Wednesday after the October 19 Mr. Olympia and with just a little more than two weeks to go to the GNC Show of Strength in New Orleans, I’ve come to watch Gunter Schlierkamp train chest.
At 6’1″ and 300 lean pounds, Schlierkamp stands out wherever he goes, including the Olympia stage, but he is especially conspicuous here among the family-fitness types. We’re only 30 miles from Gold’s Gym, Venice, the genial ‘giant’s previous place of workout, but that seems like Oz and this seems like Kansas. That’s fine with Schlierkamp, who grew up on a farm in Germany. He was searching for a quieter way of life when he and wife Carmen moved to the area three years ago and an even simpler lifestyle when they bought a ranch on the edge of mountains and desert a few months before the Olympia.
GUNTER AND GLASS Schlierkamp gives much of the credit for his amazing transformation in 2002 to trainer Charles Glass. The 1983 NPC National middleweight-class winner, Glass, 50, has been a personal trainer for nearly 20 years, acting as Yoda to such Jedi disciples as Flex Wheeler, Ronnie Coleman, Paul Dillett and Chris Cormier. “Being a bodybuilder myself, I know what another person can endure,” Glass explains. “I’ll push them right to the brink of that point.” The dreadlocked gym guru has long been a fixture at Gold’s in Venice, but he happens to live in Santa Clarita.
“When I first met Gunter in Gold’s years ago, I thought Damn, that guy’s got a lot of potential to go places,” Glass remembers. “But for years he thought I didn’t want to train him, and I thought he didn’t want my help.” After his disappointing 15th-place finish in the 2001 Olympia, Schlierkamp approached Glass, who enthusiastically agreed to work with him. When Glass asked judges to assess Schlierkamp’s faults, three areas stood out: upper pecs, deltoids and overall back thickness. The twosome set out on a 12-month journey to turn those weaknesses into strengths. I was there to witness the duo’s radical approach to chest training. EXERCISE ONE: INCLINE PRESSES The gym’s sound system serves up a steady stream of irritating oldies. As Schlierkamp does a couple of warm-up sets of incline bench presses, ABBA’s “Waterloo” drones on. During all presses, the bar is lowered to a point approximately six inches above his chest and pushed to lockout. This may seem the reverse of proper technique, for most people focus on the bottom of presses, but working only through the top two-thirds keeps constant pressure on the pecs, as well as the front delts and triceps. “You don’t want to bring the bar all the way down,” Schlierkamp advises, “because if you do, you’ll relax your muscles. You want to keep your muscles tensed throughout the set.”
The first working set is 225 pounds for 12 reps to failure. If you’re now thinking you can outlift the biggest pro, remember this is occurring immediately after the Olympia and before the GNC Show of Strength, when Schlierkamp’s strength is at its weakest. He regularly incline presses 365 for six to eight reps in the off season. Additionally, the pace is very fast; he pauses only long enough for his training partner, Richard Sears, to do a set. “I used to train two hours per workout, but I didn’t make much progress,” Schlierkamp explains. “I started training faster on my own, but when I started working with Charles, he pushes me even faster. I’ve had people try to keep up with me who have had to quit or throw up, but the quick pace works for me.”
The final set is a drop set, which means the weight is reduced during the set. It begins with 275 until Schlierkamp reaches failure at five reps. The bar is then racked only long enough for Glass and Sears to strip off two quarters. Immediately, the German giant pumps out five reps with 225. Having reached failure again, two 45-pound plates are pulled and he keeps going with 135, stopping after seven strict reps when he can’t squeeze out an eighth.
EXERCISE TWO: BENCH PRESSES
Few pros do barbell bench presses, especially precontest, but Glass believes heavy compound lifts are best for muscle density and that those who rely on isolation lifts and machines look flat on bodybuilding contest stages. Schlierkamp does his first set with 225 for 12 reps, his second with 275 for nine and his third with 295 for eight. All the while, at Glass’ urging, he keeps up a brutal pace.
For all of his pressing exercises, Schlierkamp uses a shoulder-width grip, several inches narrower than one would expect from someone his height. He found the medium grip awkward at first, but Glass insisted Schlierkamp keep using it until it grew comfortable. Glass explains that going narrower makes for a longer range of motion, pulling a trainer’s chest up, thus boosting thickness.
The final set is another torturous drop set, beginning with 315 for six, followed immediately by 245 for four, 185 for six and 135 for five. All the while, Glass is encouraging his charge: “Squeeze it, come on, fire it up, lock it, come on, come on.” Afterward, Schlierkamp looks at me, grabbing his pecs to quell the pain. “You see how he kills me,” he says with a laugh.
“We push most sets right to failure, but we don’t cross that line,” Glass remarks. “Once you cross over, you up the odds for injury. I always watch the expression on a person’s face. You can tell by watching their faces if they need some help, and I’ll put my fingers under the bar and help them through it.”
The gym guru also explains the importance of correct breathing. “After we started working together and he began breathing properly during exercises, his abs started tightening up and it pulled everything in, so his waist actually got smaller. You especially need to breathe right when training legs. If you do, I guarantee your waist will get smaller. Most people breathe wrong and it expands their waists. They’re trying to hold their breath, which only makes their waists go out. You have to continue to breathe normally throughout every set.”
EXERCISE THREE: SEATED MACHINE PRESSES SUPERSET WITH SMITH MACHINE INCLINE PRESSES
As the disco anthem “I Will Survive” plays in the otherwise quiet gym, Glass sets up the next lifts: seated machine presses and Smith machine incline presses. It’s superset time. Schlierkamp goes immediately from 12 reps with 140 for the former to eight reps with 185 for the latter.
Both parts are performed with a Charles Glass twist. The seated machine presses are done while holding the vertical support bars outside the horizontal handles, so that the palms face each other. Glass prescribes this to stress his client’s outer pecs. The incline Smith machine presses are done with the safety catches positioned so the bar is forced to stop six inches above the protege’s gargantuan pecs. Schlierkamp presses the bar from that position each rep from a dead stop. “They’re Smith machine power presses,” Glass tells me. “They keep constant tension on the chest. Instead of going all the way down and then going right back up, we start it near the midpoint, pause and then go from there. It’s a lot harder. You hit deep tissue rather than just the surface muscle. We also do military presses like this.”
The intensity of such a superset is extreme, and Glass multiplies it with drop sets. Schlierkamp starts with 190 for the seated machine press, and each time he can’t get another rep, a 25-pound plate is stripped. He’s finally allowed to quit when he reaches failure with 90 pounds. Immediately, it’s off to do the Smith machine incline power presses for three reps at 235 and a quick drop for three more at 185.
During his brief break, the German giant grins despite the pain and shakes his head at me as if to say “Can you believe this?” Engorged with blood, his pecs resemble coils of garden hose. Little more than a minute later, he does another agonizing drop set superset; this time, the Smith machine incline power presses go on even longer.
When Schlierkamp has regained his breath and composure, he tells me, “I never did this before I started working with Charles. If you just do a regular workout, you go through the motions and maybe change exercises every now and then and your muscles get used to that. His way is pounding till the dead end, always shocking the muscles. Mostly when you train alone, you go up to the line, but with Charles, I cross the line, and that made all the difference this year.”
EXERCISE FOUR: CABLE CROSSOVERS Squeezing past wide-eyed soccer moms and pimple-faced teens, we move through narrow hallways into a second weight room that holds a cable crossover station. Glass instructs Schlierkamp to focus on the contraction. Today, the protege is bringing his hands in front of his upper chest, but they vary the positioning frequently. After an initial set of 15 reps with 50 pounds per side, he does three more sets of 10 with 70 pounds per side.
Glass explains his approach to intensity: “A lot of people just try to lift heavier weights and get a little pump, but they never exhaust their muscles. We really try to wipe the muscles out, totally exhaust them. Today, we worked it until we got failure from him. I always say that if a person can do a pushup or dip after the chest workout, we didn’t tax the muscles hard enough. [sometimes have him do a couple of pushups; when he can’t do them, then the workout is over, because there’s nothing more we can do. It’d just be overkill. He’s fatiguing now, so it’s time to quit.” AFTERMATH Forty-five minutes after the chest workout began, it’s over. The session I witnessed was Schlierkamp’s precontest routine. In the offseason, the pace is a little slower and the weights are a lot heavier. Generally, drop sets are done only for the final month before a show. Also, the workout may be different the next time they hit chest; Glass likes variety. Frequently, they do dumbbell flyes on a low incline or flat bench.
When Charles Glass and I leave, Phil Collins is crooning “Against All Odds” and Gunter Schlierkamp is walking a treadmill, putting in an hour of post-pump cardio before the 45-minute drive home to his ranch house. He knows he gave the workout everything he could.
Looking like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, he’s smiling and joking, living his dream at last and dreaming of bigger days to come.
GUNTER SCHLIERKAMP’S OFFSEASON CHEST WORKOUT
EXERCISE SETS REPS
Barbell incline presses 3 * 6-12
Barbell bench presses 4 6-12
Seated machine presses 3 6-12
Smith machine incline presses 3 6-12
Cable crossovers 4 10-15
Note: Precontest, the last one or two sets of all presses are drop sets.
* Precede with two warm-up sets, 20 reps each.
GUNTER SCHLIERKAMP’S TRAINING SPLIT
Note: Calves and abdominals aretrained every other day.
CHARLES GLASS’ RECOMMENDED CHEST WORKSOUT *
EXERCISE SETS REPS
Bench presses 3 10-12
Incline presses 3 10-12
Decline presses 3 10-12
Bench presses 3 8-10
Incline presses 3 8-10
Decline presses 3 8-10
Low incline flyes 3 8-10
* Glass believes that less-experienced trainers should focus on compound
RELATED ARTICLE: GLASS GUIDELINES
These are the methods that make Charles Glass’ training so successful.
* BASIC TRAINING In addition to more specialized lifts, always include compound basics.
* CONTINUOUS TENSION Limit the range of motion of exercises such as chest presses to keep constant pressure on the targeted muscles.
* FAILURE Push most sets to failure.
* INTENSITY Use techniques such as supersets, drop sets and a rapid pace to increase intensity, especially precontest.
* MUSCLE TARGETING Gear exercises to ward limited areas. For example, instead of bent rows for the entire back, Glass’ clients may do dumbbell rows facedown on an incline bench to hit the upper inner back.
* PRIORITIZATION Place special emphasis on your weakest points, thus improving symmetry.
* STRICT FORM To keep constant tension on the muscles and avoid injury, always maintain proper technique.
* UNIQUE EXERCISES Use some of Glass’ favorite unusual lifts, such as Smith machine incline power presses for the upper chest or dumbbell deadlifts/rows for the lumbar/lower tat tie-ins.
* VARIETY Change routines regularly.
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