How Tom Platz Built Those Legs
How Tom Platz Built Those Legs by Lara McGlashan-Volz
Just starting out, I trained with Olympic lifters who taught me a reverence for the squat. They taught me that this is where life and death passes before your eyes, that this is the altar of weight lifting. But when I first came to Gold's in Venice the squat rack was cluttered and shoved in the back, an nobody used it. Sure, Arnold and Ed Corney used it in Pumping Iron, but that was more for show. When I started squatting a lot, people said I shouldn't because it would throw off my balance and symmetry. I did it anyway.
Because it was so taxing, I squatted only twice a month. It was like you were attempting something superhuman. To prepare for it, I'd get up at 5 a.m. and mentally talk to myself as encouragement and that helped make it easy in my mind. It never turned out that way, of course. It was always brutal, to the point where I'd go, "I think I felt the muscle tear off the bone. I think we should stop, Tony (Martinez)." And he's say, "You'll be okay. Rub it a little bit and you'll be fine." But I was good at talking myself into the idea of squatting, even though I knew the reality."
I'd put on my lifting shoes - I wore Adidas weightlifting shoes with a higher heel that tapered down to a thin sole - and they were part of my experience, physically and psychologically. I mean, would you go ice-skating without blades? Lifting shoes were that for me: an important piece of the puzzle that made my workout the experience that it was.
So I'd put on my shoes, grab my gear and drive from Malibu to Venice in my 1960 Corvette. As I pulled out of the garage the throaty rumble of the powerful engine would blend into my psyche and become part of my preparation as I drove. I'd purposely drive by the ocean to watch the waves smash powerfully against the rocks. If I thought about the workout too much, I'd get sweaty palms on the way to the gym and couldn't grip the steering wheel. Watching the ocean helped distract, and prepare me.
I'd pull into Gold's in Venice. It wasn't busy like it is today. There were only a few of us there, especially that early. And, of course, Tony would be there waiting for me, ready for the workout.
We'd go to the squat rack and I remember always stretching in front of the rack. I'd take the hurdler's position on the floor - one leg bent, the other straight - then lower my nose to my knee. As I stretched out I'd try to ease my mind, convince myself I was there to have fun, to just do one or two sets and call it quits. Sometimes we'd even cover the mirror with newspaper because I didn't want to see myself squat. I just wanted to feel it and experience it within my own being.
Of course this pre-workout time wasn't only about the stretching; it was also about emotionally and physically preparing for what was about to come. I'd touch the weights, the rack, the bar, and I'd have this almost religious reverence for them. I liked to use an old battered bar, slightly bent just enough so that it didn't roll off my shoulders when I was standing erect. I'd marked it with a plate, banged the plate on the collar so that I could remember which one it was, and I always wrapped a towel around the bar before I started my sets.
Done stretching, I'd put on my lifting belt - a little loose so that I could breathe - and Tony and I would warm up real slow. A set at 135 for 10 easy reps. Add another plate, nice and easy. Then we'd listen to Motown and we'd start progressing with the weight. Now 315. I'd leave space between the plates on purpose so when I came up from the squat, a real quick rep, the plates would jingle. The sound was very important to me. The music, the Motown and the plates jingling against one another - big, thick, 45-pound iron plates. That sound helped me time the reps and my movement. I liked to come up quickly with such speed that the bar would bend over my shoulders and the plates would crash together, and I relished that sensation! I'd do a quick 20 reps with 315 with all my senses focused.
One more 45 per side and Tony would put the collars on, knowing the exact space to get that sound. Tony would count off my reps . . . 10 . . . 20 . . . 30 - let's see how far we can go! When I'd get to the point where I couldn't do any more reps, Tony would say something like, "You OWN this exercise!" or "Go after it and GET IT!" He would conjure up six, eight, 10, 20 more reps out of me. Then I'd literally fall into the squat rack and jing! The plates would rattle and I'd fall to the floor. I'd take the belt off and all of a sudden I was gasping for air and I couldn't breathe. It felt like someone was driving knives into my legs, and my heart rate went through the roof. I couldn't see, I was sweating profusely, but eventually I'd come back.
Sometimes it took me 20 minutes, but I always came back. When I could see properly again I'd go outside and breathe some fresh air, then come back in and say, "Okay, Tony, one more set!" And we'd go again.
On those days when I left the gym I was high. I thought, "I lived through this. I got through this. I can do anything in life." I'd keep my belt on loosely and walk to the car, thinking victory. I was one with my spirit and with God.
I trained legs every week, but the squats were so exhausting that I couldn't walk afterward and doing another exercise was simply out of the question. So I squatted twice a month and did other 'accessory' machine movements like leg extensions, leg curls, and hack squats on alternate weeks.
Back in the mid-80s this guy named Magic, who lived in a yellow school bus behind Gold's gym, made me a special lifting belt to strap myself into place onto the old leg extension at Gold's - the original one Joe Gold had made that Arnold, Draper, Zane, Corney and all of my mentor figures had used. I'd hurt my arm - I tore the biceps tendon off the bone - and although it had been repaired, hanging onto the leg extension machine put a lot of stress on my arm. The old machine was just a seat with no back and a bicycle chain attached to the weight stack. It was antiquated, even at that time, but I liked it because I felt Draper's fingerprints on it. A lot of people had no idea how to use the machine because it didn't have a back on it, but I knew. All I had to do was look at that machine and my legs grew.
I'd lock myself into the machine (using the belt Magic made), and hook my feet under the pad. I'd warm up with some light weight, like half a stack for a set of 10. Then I had this old, bent, beat-up pin that I'd put underneath the whole stack and hand a 100-pound plate off. Tony's job was to make sure that plate didn't fall of while I was doing my reps! Then I'd start: I'd pull this weight stack with the 100-pound plate as forcefully as I could up in the air, accelerating through the whole movement. Because the machine had to back, I'd lean forward, grab the back of the machine and at this point I was almost parallel to the floor! Then I'd lower the stack and plate back to the start, controlling its descent as I sat back up. A jackknife. Rep after rep, I'd feel the tension accumulating in my muscles. And when I dropped the weight at the bottom it'd bounce on the springs of the machine. I'd lift it again and my legs would light on fire. The intensity and the tension were indicative that growth was imminent. Separation, clarity, distinction, quality -- all the freaky stuff I lived for would be forthcoming.
I'd get 8-10 reps for the first 5 sets, then maybe 2-5 reps for the next 5. When I say 8-10 or 2-5,that's reps done on my own; I'm not counting the 15-20 forced reps -- baby reps, partial reps, negatives -- that Tony would assist me with. I'd raise the machine arm as high as I possibly could so that my quads were fully contracted. Then Tony would push down, in pulses almost, on the machine arm and I'd resist his pressure. He'd repeatedly push down,then let go, and I would bring it back up as high as I could. The weight would slowly get lower and lower because I was getting fatigued,and finally about 6 to 7 minutes later the set would be done. It was like a long, extended negative set with little pushes and pulls throughout. And that was just one set.
When the set was over I'd be in extreme pain, writhing around. And it was like an operation to get me out of that machine as a few guys unbuckled me and took the chains and straps off. Then I'd get up and hang onto the machine and gasp for air. But after a minute or two, Tony would look at me and say, "You ready? Let's go." And he'd lock me back into place again and I'd do 6-10 more sets.
Lying Leg Curls
I'd always do lying leg curls at the completion or our workout. We used the old Nautilus leg curl machine -- the one with a bicycle chain that made a ton of noise -- of course! Again, a very antiquated machine but the most effective one of all time, I believe. It's long gone but I still remember how it used to feel.
Because we did leg curls at the end of the workout, I was pretty tired and could only do like 1-4 sets, but I'd change it up to achieve failure. Sometimes I'd do 50 reps with moderate weight, or I'd use tons of weight for only 3 reps. The workouts depended on my mood and my level of exhaustion.
For the curls I'd do a number of reps on my own, then I'd have Tony grab my ankles and push down very, very slowly. I'd fight back the whole time and the negative part of the set might last a whole minute. Two sets like that and I was finished.
Hack squats were very, very meaningful in terms of bringing out the sweep in my quads. Initially when I was developing my training protocol I tried to do hacks after my barbell squats. But because I could barely walk after squatting I had no strength to do them, so I did the hacks on alternate weeks, too.
In the machine, I was taught to put my heels together and point my toes out. That way you primarily squat on the lateral edge of your foot, putting tension on the vastus lateralis, which gives the thighs a sweep.
I'd do a warmup set with a few plates on each side to get my head on right -- of course leaving some space between the plates so they'd jingle and give me that sound I loved -- then I'd do hack squats until I couldn't do any more. Sometimes I'd have four 45-pound plates on each side for 8-10 reps. Other times I'd have a quarter or a dime on their for 50 reps. The weight didn't matter. I'd go for that mental connection to my body and my legs. I wanted to feel and grow that tension to the point where I knew it was going to be effective in the muscles becoming larger, more striated or more substantial.
I'd do several reps on my own, then I'd have Tony push down on the machine while I'd do partial reps. Or sometimes I'd have Tony sit on the machine, hang onto it and pull, and I'd do baby reps, partial reps, isometrics and negatives. Whatever it took to completely exhaust the muscles to the point of absolute failure -- then go beyond that into the red zone. We'd do a total of about 6-10 sets of hack squats.
We would actually go to World Gym down the street to do calves. That's where Arnold and Frank and a lot of other guys were training at the time, and since our hard, focused work was through we could spare a little energy and joke around there. Plus they had better calf machines!
We'd change our routine a lot and sometimes we'd do standing calf raises. I'd have Tony and a couple of other guys hanging off the machine, and I'd be holding the weight as high as I could for as long as I could. Other times I'd do as many reps as I could for one set and call it a day. We also did seated calf raises. I'd have as many as 15 100-pound plates stacked on there. I'd do my reps then have Tony push slightly, pumping it with baby movements until I couldn't sustain the tension.
One time the seated calf machine actually broke! It shot me out of the machine like a bullet. Joe Gold was freaking out and yelling at everybody and I'm like, "What happened?" This was two weeks before the Olympia in 1981 and after a few moments my ankle started to swell up. I iced it and it was okay, but it was still a little swollen. If you look closely at the '81 Olympia photos you'll notice a difference in my ankles. One looks swollen. That's what it's from.
I wasn't the most genetically gifted bodybuilder, but my attitude prevailed. I attribute my physical success to my dedication and my training. It really started in Michigan, the craziness. In college, we'd plan a yearly squat-off to see who could do the most reps. We'd plan it for a whole year and I dreaded it for a whole year. I remember when the day came I did 225 for 10 minutes without stopping at all. I don't remember how many reps it was, but I do remember vowing never to do that again! But I just went there. It was part of my mentality.
When I first moved to California I actually trained with Arnold for a while. I figured if his training system worked for him and Franco, it should work for me, too. But it didn't! I got smaller and fatter training with Arnold. He trained twice a day, six days a week, sometimes seven, and used lots of sets and decent weight. I got depressed because I was shrinking and took a few weeks off. When I came back I decided to train four days a week, and I grew. Arnold responded to high frequency and high volume; I responded better to less volume and frequency but much higher intensity and heavy weights. Later I realized I was doing a primitive form of periodization, working both types of muscle fibers. But back then all I knew is that I was growing!
I did, however, borrow the idea of extending my sets beyond the standard from Mike Mentzer. I'd watched him and his partner training on the leg extension machine one day: Mike would lift the weight to the top then his partner would push down slowly as Mike would resist. So I tried it and Oh My God! I felt like I'd never trained before! My quads were burning and my muscles were firing and I simply had to incorporate this concept into my training.
I discussed it with my training partner Tony and we came up with our own version of that kind of extended set. We incorporated their ideas with some of my powerlifting background where you'd do partial reps in a power rack. We came up with a set that included negatives, forced reps, partner-assisted reps, isometrics -- everything came into play in the course of one single set. We moved the weight until physically, absolutely, neither one of us could move it any more. The longer the set, the harder it became and the more I knew it would work. Of course, there was a huge benefit-to-risk ratio. I had to ask myself, "How far do I want to push a contraction before it becomes detrimental?" I was willing to toy around in that red zone.
Great article. I appreciate the honesty too. It worked for Arnold, it didn't work for me (paraphrased). Too often we try to do what Arnold, Mentzer or others did and then get frustrated when we don't have the same results. We need to be strong enough to say, "this isn't working for me, what can I do differently?"
My favorite quote from the article:
"I'd touch the weights, the rack, the bar, and I'd have this almost religious reverence for them".
The part about driving by the ocean to distract him also struck a chord with me. I always lift better if I don't think/overthink about the what is to come and the weightload. It seems siking oneself out is detrimental.
I also got the drift that doing lots of reps is a key ingredient. This article makes me wanna go out and crank out a pile of 20+ reppers.:mh:
How Tom Platz Built Those Legs
Apparently, Platz's routine was influenced by Harry S Truman.
Truman had the greatest quads of any US president, as may be seen below,
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