By PJ Braun
Sponsored by Blackstone Labs™
Don’t get caught up in what everyone else is doing. Experiment and figure out what’s best for you. Pay attention to your body and if something doesn’t feel right, try something different.
By the time you guys read this article, I will have surpassed 18 months in federal prison and working out in the gym is not just a distant memory, but now getting close to being a reality again as the second half of my sentence winds down. I have so much excitement in my heart and mind to get back to training with real weights and machines instead of bodyweight. Since the first time I touched a weight 30 years ago, I fell in love with working out! If I could work out all day, every day, I would! Sex is awesome too, close second, but I give the edge to the gym! Am I that crazy!?! I love chasing the pump and seeing my progress and I love challenging myself to push harder and more efficiently. I hate myself for getting away from that for a few years before my sentence, but I have learned to not live in the past. Time to make up for lost time. Over the years I have tried literally hundreds and hundreds of different exercises from powerlifting to functional to rehabilitation and I have learned what works best for my body through copious amounts of trial and error. So, I have decided to detail my most important exercises for each body part and why!
I started out like most kids in the gym obsessed with the barbell bench press. It was an exercise that determined who was the worst ass in the high school gym and I hated not being good at it. When I was in my late teens, I started training under a powerlifting coach named Rob DeLavega in Brookfield, Connecticut at a Powerhouse Gym and he taught me the key fundamentals of the squat, deadlift and of course the bench press. I was not a great bench presser until years after my powerlifting career. My best max was only 455 pounds, but I was pleased when I could work out with 405 pounds for sets of eight and really proud when I did 225 pounds for 50. I was always better with stamina then low reps. The problem with the bench press is that ergonomically it is inferior to many exercises for building the chest because of the angle and stress on the shoulder joint. Most great bench pressers have massive front deltoids but often develop shoulder injuries. I destroyed both shoulders bench pressing and to this day still have lots of pain. So going back in time, if I could do things a little different, I would have spent most my time on the incline barbell press. This exercise really isolates the chest and is safer on the shoulder joint. Of course, you still need strong delts and triceps because like any compound movement, the body must work in synergy, but by keeping your scapula down and back, the stress is just unreal! It’s much harder than the flat version but it will blow your chest up!
Honorable mention: The incline dumbbell press is a close second because it’s so important to incorporate unilateral exercises to work out imbalances, and you can place the dumbbells exactly where you need to really feel the muscle work.
I love the dumbbell press and the Hammer Strength shoulder press. However, you can press all you want but if you really want them to look awesome, you need to do tons of lateral raises. The medial and posterior delts need that extra stimulation or you will be very imbalanced. My favorite is the seated dumbbell lateral raise done slow and strict. I start with the dumbbells under my legs so I can get a farther range of motion, and it’s hard to cheat when you’re seated.
Honorable mention: Reverse pec deck. Most people do this way too heavy and get too much trap involved. Done very light and strict, you can really engage the posterior delts more than anything else to round out the back of the delts!
For many years I focused on the barbell squat. I loved squatting heavy and would often work up to 495 pounds for sets of 10. I squat deep and love the feeling of exploding out of the hole. However, it wasn’t until a great bodybuilder named Ben Pakulski and I did legs together that he talked me into opening my mind about training. In 2006, we did legs for a Muscular Development video at Gold’s Gym Venice. I told him I mostly just do lots of squats, but he got me to start incorporating more variety and splitting the days up. I started experimenting and that’s when I really started growing. What was the key? The hack squat! Nothing overloads your quads the way the hack squat does and it’s much safer on your back!
Honorable mention: Close-stance leg press to 90 degrees. A lot of guys either use too short of a range of motion or too deep of a range of motion where the spine starts to curl off the back support, which is very dangerous. Keep the knees together and come down to 90 degrees and explode up to really overload the quads!
OK guys, you are going to be really surprised by this one. But if you really want thick hamstrings, the key exercise here is a wider-stance squat! Yes, that’s right. When you learn to sit back into your glutes and hams and perform the reps slow and efficient, the hamstrings get a different kind of stimulation. You’re probably thinking, I thought squats were a quad exercise? Squats work the entire lower body and when you open your stance, sit back and push through your heels, you will blast your hamstrings like crazy too. Want to really intensify it? Check out this tip in my honorable mention! Want to get more glute involved? Try the dumbbell plié squat or sumo variation.
Honorable mention: Lying hamstring curls done before you squat, so they are engorged with blood. Either superset or just done as straight sets, this combo really brought out the thickness in my side poses and the lying hamstring curl is essentially like doing a barbell curl for your arms. Explode up and control the negative. Learn to do hip thrusts properly, and the stimulation to the posterior chain will be superior to doing squats alone.
I absolutely love training back, and I had a hard time coming up with my number one here, so I am going to first say that your back needs lots of volume and angles but most importantly, you must row like crazy to grow. I love all variations of row exercises, from barbells to dumbbells to Hammer Strength to cables!! They all have their place, but I am breaking this down for width and thickness. For width, you have to barbell row with an underhand grip. Oh yeah, baby, like the great Dorian Yates in those crazy Blood and Guts workouts that really brought the lower lats thickness out. I have gone up to some sloppy sets of 405 but prefer to be stricter with the weight. For thickness, I switch over to the old-school T-Bar row. Not a machine. It must be done with a 45-pound bar in a corner with a V-Grip handle near the top.
Honorable mention: Pull-ups, which are great for starting the foundation of your back. Wide-grip, close-grip and underhand chins done early in your bodybuilding journey will provide a great deal of strength. Sadly, I can barely hang from a pull-up bar without a great deal of pain in my shoulders now, but that’s from all the old injuries. For all you young guys starting out, form is most important! Don’t swing, and use a complete range of motion.
Later in my career, I got really into cable variations for the triceps to warm up my elbows. If you look at my photos, you see that triceps were one of my best body parts and they grew almost too fast for me and made my biceps look smaller. The exercise I feel did the most for mass is the overhead dumbbell extension, done with both arms at the same time. I would often go up to the heaviest dumbbells in my gym, which was 130, and could do it strict and slow for 15-20 reps.
Honorable mention: The rope pushdown, which is the most versatile exercise for the triceps because you can change the stress of the exercise so easily. I prefer to start literally every triceps workout with rope pushdowns to really warm up my elbows and find that it’s really easy to pump up fast this way!
I see so many people train biceps too heavy and because of that, they don’t maximize the contractions and the full range of motion for the biceps. I was guilty of this early on in my career and it wasn’t until I started doing lots of incline dumbbell curls that my arms really grew. The incline curl when done properly takes the delt out of the exercise and from a full range of motion, the stretch at the bottom makes the muscle really isolate. I love dumbbell exercises, and this is by far my favorite.
Honorable mention: The dumbbell preacher curl. They key on this one is locking your armpit onto the top of the preacher bench and keeping your shoulders pulled back. Another awesome unilateral isolation exercise.
The best of the rest: I have trained calves, abs, and forearms hard and thorough, but my position is slightly different here. These are areas that simply can be ignored if they are genetically superior because of all the stimulation they get. I know so many guys who don’t train abs because they get lots of stimulation from compound exercises and their abs are sick. It’s easy to overtrain the ancillary groups too. Specifically forearms, because your grip is involved in so much! I developed major tendinitis from doing forearm work and don’t isolate them anymore. You want massive forearms? Don’t use straps on back day!
My calves were massive before I even touched a weight. EMG studies show that the donkey calf raise recruits the most muscle fibers, but many gyms don’t have that machine, so you got to make do with what you got. Variety is key for calves and abs, and if I really had to pick a number one ab exercise, it would be the kneeling rope crunch because you can really exaggerate the range of motion and contraction. If you want to really hit your core, you need to involve reverse curvature of the spine, meaning your lower body curls up toward your head instead of the standard crunching down!
So, there you have it. My most important exercises. Don’t get caught up in what everyone else is doing. Experiment and figure out what’s best for you. Pay attention to your body and if something doesn’t feel right, try something different. What works best for me may not work best for you and the best part of the bodybuilding journey is learning the keys to success in the gym to unlock your true potential. Just because I have been training 30 years doesn’t mean I have stopped learning. When you stop learning, you stop your growth. That goes for the body, the mind, and the spirit.
Until next time, I love you all. Peace out, bye.