If you believe you can’t build muscle, don’t come crying to me. I won’t help you. For regular readers of my Men’s Fitness column, that will come as no surprise. But if you are new to me or the magazine, hello, my name is Charles Poliquin and I am a very successful strength coach. I am not a gently-does-it, soft-spoken, people-placating diplomat.
A major part of the reason I have had success in my chosen field, and not in the Canadian diplomatic corps, is my finely tuned ‘bullshit detector’. I don’t waste a single second trying to placate people who bitch and moan that they don’t have the time to train, or that they are doing everything right but are still not getting results, or that they are ‘hardgainers’. If you look like the offspring of Woody Allen and Twiggy, then it must be tempting to blame your genetic pool (it’s a shame your parents didn’t add chlorine). My advice? Don’t drink tomato juice: you may get mistaken for a thermometer.
Mind over muscle
Jokes aside, the problem I have with the label ‘hardgainer’ is that it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The primary reason these individuals have such a difficult time making gains is they believe they are hardgainers, so they are never in a positive frame of mind. Thinking they can’t put on muscle, they become frustrated and constantly change their workouts, so they never improve at anything.
The people who get the most impressive results are those who train hard consistently and then tweak certain variables – exercise selection, tempo, body position – to elicit further growth. Even more importantly, they have a confident, positive outlook on what they want to achieve. This gives them the clarity to approach each session in the most effective and efficient manner. There are no excuses, just hard work and impressive results.
Another type of attitude adjustment that needs fixing is that of the ‘self-delusional achievers’. They are convinced they’re training and recovering perfectly, and are seemingly oblivious to the very real evidence that they are not. That’s why their skinny arms hang like hosepipes from their skin-tight sleeveless T-shirt, which vacuum-wraps their bulging potbellies.
They say they eat really well, so I can’t help but wonder why they have got a keg where a six-pack should be or whether it’s possible to use their chins as a speedball. When a client with this condition excitedly bounds over to me to say that they’ve ‘just dropped’ ten kilos, my response is always the same. I look them up and down, scratch my chin and ask them, ‘Why did you only drop them halfway?’
I’m kidding, but this is a serious problem. These people are ‘skinny-fat’, which means they have very poor muscular development yet high levels of fat storage. So not only do they get mistaken for a beached whale when they sunbathe on holiday but their appearance is also one of the biggest indicators for a large number of serious health issues, including diabetes and heart disease. They need to take serious action to restore the muscle-fat balance, or else they are looking at a later life full of ill health.
Among the worst self-delusional achievers are those with a debilitating condition I encounter far too frequently. Although most of them are unaware they are carriers, it is an unpleasant and embarrassing ailment that the rest of us have to deal with. I’m talking about Imaginary Lat Spread (ILS).
We’ve all seen this condition in the gym. The sufferer struts around the weights room hunched over because too much chest work and not enough back work have rotated his shoulders forward, resulting in this unbalanced posture. And his arms are so far out to the sides it looks as though he is carrying two giant, invisible watermelons. In actual fact he is hoping to give you and me the impression that the musculature of his back is so big and strong and wide that he physically can’t get his arms any closer to his body.
The mind game
My point is that when it comes to building a bigger and stronger physique, everything must begin in your brain. If you believe you can’t put on muscle, then you won’t, no matter how hard you train. And kidding yourself that you are a modern-day Arnie by wearing skin-tight tees or walking around like a gorilla with a stick up its ass means you’ll never get the body you want.
Why? Because you’re spending too much time thinking about what you look like when you should be spending that time changing what you look like. Get your mind right and the muscle will quickly follow.
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One of the world's premier strength coaches, Charles Poliquin has successfully trained professional athletes and Olympians worldwide. Poliquin writes a monthly column for Men's Fitness about how to train as effectively as possible.