Ironman: Tom, to start at the very beginning, when did you first get the idea that you wanted to do this – weight training? And when did you actually start bodybuilding?
Tom Platz: When I was ten years old, probably closer to 9 ½, I looked at a muscle magazine and saw that picture of Dave Draper on the beach with Betty Weider on one arm and two girls on each leg and another on the other arm. He was holding the Weider Crusher in his hands, and in the background were the waves and the surfboard stuck in the sand.
I looked at that picture, and it was like, “God! I don’t believe this.” It was an incredible transformational moment which changed my life forever. That photo just motivated me and inspired me and said something to me – about the physicality of California, about lifting weights and having muscles of iron. I was just totally moved by that; it was like becoming a priest, having a calling from God at that young age. That’s what I had to do with my life. I knew that at the time. In fact, when I was 11, I was dead set on becoming Mr. Universe. And I knew it was going to happen; I had rehearsed it many, many times in my own mind.
On the facing page of the magazine I remember a picture of Arnold drinking protein out of a blender, and it was almost like his biceps were hanging out when he was doing that. I showed both of those pictures to my dad and I said, “That’s what I want to do for a living.” Somehow I fully expected money to be involved in the sport, although there wasn’t at that time. I was assuming there would be business opportunity in bodybuilding, and eventually there was for me many years later.
IM: So you actually started training when?
TP: When I was 9 ½.
IM: And what was the nature of your training at that time? Did you actually do a full training routine?
TP: When I was 9 ½, I can remember doing bench presses on the cellar floor after dinner. My father would take my brother and sister and myself downstairs to the basement, to the cellar – they have cellars back East – and I would lay on the floor, and he would read the Weider instructional manual to me. My brother and sister were just learning to count at that time, and they would learn how to count by counting my reps. I remember my elbows would always hit the cement floor, and I couldn’t figure out how to do this thing called the bench press. It seemed like such a stupid exercise, and I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working right (laughs). Later I learned that there was such a thing as a bench you could lay on so your elbows could go below the level of the bench and you could do the exercise properly.
I also did curls. You know, I did just the very, very basics – just learning what the muscles were, learning what the exercises were and how they could be applied, learning the very basics of human movement or kinesiology applied to bodybuilding.
IM: and did you do some work for the legs at that time as well?
TP: No, I never did any leg work back then. I think I tried a couple of sets of squats, but my father wasn’t sure how to do squats. And some of the friends I had later on in life up until the age of 15 told me that squats weren’t good for you, that they would make your butt big or they were bad for your back.
I also had a back problem when I was a child – I was born with some kind of deformity in my lower back where something wasn’t fused together. Squats bothered it, so I didn’t squat, but I continued to do upper-body exercises at that time.
IM: I take it your father wasn’t really an experienced person with weights or athletics.
TP: No, he wasn’t. You know, he was very much a military person, very much a corporate executive, and he wasn’t an athlete. But he was able to lift the entire bar over his head, which was 135 pounds at that time, all the weights that I had, and I was completely mesmerized by that act (laughs).
IM: When did you adopt a more formal training program, and when did you actually start training your legs?
TP: When we moved to Kansas City, I was (pauses), well, I was always big for my age. I was a big kid. I think at age 15 I was like 165 pounds. I was training and I had a big chest, and I always looked like I trained. I drove my motorcycle down to the health spa, and I applied for a position as an instructor. I was very young at that time – in fact, too young to legally be employed. And I think the manager of that particular health spa, which was called the European Health Spa, sensed a great deal of passion and excitement in my voice for the practice of weight training, and he hired me! He hired me at age 15, and I was able to drive my motorcycle down each day to the plaza to work after school, to instruct people.
I think the manager probably felt that my excitement and passion for weight training would be a useful tool in obtaining or signing up future members. Which it was! I was really into bodybuilding and excited about it, and I would talk about it to new people coming into the gym. Bodybuilding was a passion of mine, and that passion translated into gross sales.
I worked there, I think, for a couple of years – from age 15 to 16 or 17. And I just started doing squats because there were a couple of serious lifters there and somebody showed me how to do squats. I tried it one day; my first workout was 95 pounds for what felt like a very hard set of 10. I really didn’t like the exercise that much. I mean, I sort of just did it to do it. I did three sets of 10 eventually just because it was leg day supposedly, and leg day was my 15 minute workout. Whereas chest and back and arms were my big days. Legs were trivial. That was my attitude.
IM: So at age 15 you started doing leg work for the first time, and the workout would consist simply of squats?
TP: Yes, 95 pounds – never more than 105 pounds – for sets of 10.
IM: How long did you actually stay with this one-exercise beginner routine?
TP: Well, I trained for about two years like that – just sort of making my leg day an easy day. I think I did some abs that same day and some other things. It was a day I would go into the gym more or less to recuperate and to talk to some of my friends. Never really applying the energy necessary to legs that I did to other bodyparts. In fact, I was known in high school as having, you know, twig legs and a huge upper body.
IM: That’s rather surprising. Most people who know about your bodybuilding accomplishments might just assume that you started working legs right from the very beginning and your leg development just took off.
TP: No, it was completely the opposite. In fact, a lot of my high school buddies would say to me years later, “Oh, my God, in high school you never had legs. In fact you were known for having skinny legs.”
It wasn’t until we moved to Detroit and I went to a place called Armento’s Gym, which is still there, that I really got into leg training. I think I was in the 12th grade, and there were a lot of serious Olympic lifters in that gym.
In Detroit it seemed everyone worked for the automobile industry. Just like everyone in Los Angeles seems to work for the studios or on films or production of some kind, everyone in Detroit works for GM or Ford (laughs). And a lot of the people who were working at those car factories were very serious lifters. Norb Schemansky, the famous Olympic weightlifter, used to train at Armento’s Gym. A lot of his students, a lot of his training partners were my initial teachers for the squat. And there’s another guy from Michigan State, Freddie Lowe, who inspired me to squat. Great Olympic lifter.
When you’ve been taught to squat by an Olympic lifter, it’s a very serious thing. I mean, the bar real high on your neck. You know, the very strict squat performance – our butt touching the ground. They taught me to develop ankle flexibility, which was a prerequisite to being a great squatter. And I did what they told me. You know, I was a young kid – maybe 165 pounds – and these guys were 240 to 300 pounds. I was like, “Whatever you say, I’ll do” (chuckles). And they showed me how to squat. I think they saw that I had the genetic predisposition for leg strength or leg size. And as they showed me and planned my workouts for me, I gained strength and size very rapidly.
They would actually write my workouts up for me, these Olympic lifters. Especially one guy – his name was Bob Morris – who would really work with me. He would put the weight on the bar for me, him and his partners. They wouldn’t let me leave the gym until I adequately squatted and met all their requirements according to proper squatting protocol. Being a 16 or 17 year old kid, I was very inspired.
So, rather than adopting bad form, I adopted perfect form. And since I had the genetic predisposition for squatting ability – such as a high degree of ankle flexion, low center of gravity, correct muscle attachment sites for the necessary and proper kinesiological function in relation to my anatomical structure – well, they noticed all those things. And they would actually tell me what to do, when, how much to do, how many reps to do, and they were often amazed! Because at the end of the workout once a week they would say to me, “Well, Tom, now that you did your heavy weights, I want you to do a set of 10 with a lighter weight. Just a warm down set.” So we’d sometimes put 310 or 315 pounds on the bar to warm down with – this is when I’d been squatting for a few years; this wasn’t the first day – and rather than doing 10 reps, I’d do like 25 or 30. And, you know, they were blown away by the reps I could do with heavy weights.
They taught me how to squat very strict and very true to the Olympic style. They would not allow me to train like a powerlifter or to squat like a powerlifter. Nor did I want to.
IM: For people who aren’t familiar with the respective techniques here, what’s the difference between powerlifting and Olympic squatting?
TP: In powerlifting squatting the bar is real low on your back, and you use you butt and your lower back almost exclusively. Your legs are just a leverage piece of equipment basically (laughs). The stress isn’t on your legs – well, it is to some degree., but you’re using your butt and your lower back to push yourself up. And the angle at which you squat is sort of a forward lean rather than an up-and-down angle. The upper body is leaning forward, your knees stay in front of your toes.
In Olympic squatting your knees are in front of your toes, the bar is very high on your back, and you go down to the point where your butt is touching the ground or your heels.
Olympic-squatting technique is more of a straight up-and-down movement in which the stress is directly on the quadriceps. If you think about it, in bodybuilding you try to make the exercise as hard as you can make it. It’s: How hard can you make the exercise and how productive can you make the muscle response in reference to that?
In powerlifting the objective is: How easy can you make the exercise so that you can lift the most weight? Powerlifting is not an easy sport, not by any means, but the point of it is: How do you get the most weight up and establish the best possible leverage, whereas in bodybuilding the objective is to make the exercise hard. I liked Olympic lifting for that strict protocol involved. And every Olympic lifter knew that I had great leg development.
In fact, bodybuilders back then never squatted. I first came out to L.A. in ’77, and the squat rack at Gold’s Gym was way in the back behind all the old equipment. Nobody ever used it. The bodybuilders were all doing leg extensions, hack squats and lunges.
I came out to Los Angeles, started doing squats, and people were going, “What is he doing? Is he crazy? It makes your waist big. It makes your butt big.” But after a while that all died down, and I like to think that I was somewhat instrumental in making the squat a popular exercise to train legs again. A lot of the guys joined in with me.
IM: When you lived in Detroit, were you still doing only one exercise?
TP: Well, I would do squats with the Olympic lifters, but I was fascinated by this one bodybuilder whose name was Farrel. That was his first name; I don’t even know what his last name was. He trained in the Detroit gym – Armento’s Gym – and he was a thin guy, a little thin bodybuilder, but he had tremendous leg separation and tremendous leg shape. More so than the Olympic lifters. Not the same size, not the same denseness and quality of musculature that the Olympic lifters had. But he had tremendous shape and tremendous separation, which I wanted to have in addition to the size of the Olympic lifters.
So I watched him train, and he taught me how to do hack squats – how to put my heels together. The platform that we had back then was just an itty-bitty platform, and, you know, you had to put your heels close together. But he taught me to put my heels close together and point my feet out like a duck. And his theory was it would develop the lateral section of your thigh, which it did – and it does!
So we did hack squats on both of my squat days back then. I would go, oh, usually about five sets. I would generally work up in weight as a warmup, and then I’d work down. But this became my second most useful exercise in leg development.
IM: And how long did you stay with that routine?
TP: Well, my late high school days and all through my college days I stayed with that routine. In fact, I even followed that routine up to my competitive years, and I really didn’t start doing leg extensions until before a contest.
IM: So squats and hack squats were the combination that laid the foundation for your thigh development.
TP: Absolutely. Beyond any question.
IM: Can we get an idea here of the sets and reps and the kinds of weights you were handling? I take it the weights you were using gradually increased with time.
TP: Well, I can remember training through various weight barriers during the course of the years. I can remember the first time I did 315 for reps in the squat – three plates on each side. It was a big accomplishment. I mean, that’s what the big guys did, and I was able to do that for a set of three to four reps. I was totally mesmerized and excited and passionate about the exercise. It felt perfect – it felt like a piston inside a cylinder. That’s the way I sort of visualized myself doing the exercise.
I developed little techniques back then – like wearing high socks. If I wore high socks, I would look shorter in the mirror. And if you’re real short, you don’t have that far down to go. At least that’s what the mind perceives. So I developed these little mental strategies to really train myself to handle bigger weights. Nobody taught me; I just developed those things on my own.
The Olympic lifters also taught me things like looking up high, looking at an imaginary spot on the wall or the ceiling to allow you to perform perfect squats. And I have my own little things that I worked in there as far as mental training was concerned, but now I’m getting away from the question you asked me.
You wanted to know about reps and sets and weights I was using. Like I was saying, I hit various barriers at different times. I remember doing 405 for the first time in my career. I remember doing 505 for the first time in my career. And so on. I mean, 505 for 15 reps was a tremendous accomplishment for me.
But back then, during the early days of the intermediate stage of my leg training, 315 for two or three reps was a normal heavy day for me in the squat. And I would never do more than 10 sets of squats, counting the warmups.
Here’s the way I set up my leg training. One day would be my heavy day in the squat. That heavy day would consist of anywhere from doubles, two reps, up to, say, six reps. Maybe as high as eight. Two to eight reps would be a heavy day; depending upon how I was structuring my training at that particular time – whether I was peaking to handle heavy weights or just training prior to that point.
Then in my other squat workout for the week I would train for reps. On the rep day I would do two sets of reps only. I did that because it felt right at that time. It just felt right for me. In fact, the Olympic lifters had a similar program where they would lift various percentages on different days. And I followed suit according to their protocols and their training strategies.
On the rep day the reps would be somewhat higher, obviously. Usually between 15 and 20.
IM: And you said you did only two sets on the rep day?
TP: Only two sets. But when I say two sets, I’m not counting the two or three warmups. And when I say 10 sets on the heavy day, I’m including the four of five warmups I would do to get to the heavier weights.
IM: And on the heavy day you would always, I take it, strive to move up to a heavier and heavier weight as time passed.
TP: Each workout I’d add five pounds to the bar on each side. I would start low enough in my training cycle so I could add two five pound plates to the bar each time. I wanted to add five pounds to each side if I could every workout on my heavy day. And a lot of times I was able to do that for a prolonged period of time.
IM: And you were also doing hack squats?
TP: Hack squats were done directly after the squat sessions.
IM: What was the sets-and-reps format with the hack squats?
TP: Usually I would warm up a little bit to get up to a heavy weight – maybe five 25’s on each side – and then I would work down. It was a very difficult, old-fashioned hack squat machine. It wasn’t very smooth at all. In fact, it was rusted, and it wouldn’t slide very well. One hundred pounds was like 500 pounds (laughs). I trained in the dungeons in those days the old-fashioned, YMCA-style dungeons with no windows. And those are the gyms I loved and enjoyed. In fact, I can tell you stories about that, too, but I won’t.
Anyway, in the hack squat I’d start out by putting a plate on each side, two plates on each side, three plates on each side. Then I’d put five plates on each side and start my way down.
IM: How many sets would you typically do?
TP: Usually five sets, not including the warmup sets. And the reps would be somewhere between six and eight. I’d perhaps work down from maybe 500 pounds to a light weight.
IM: Were you doing low reps on the warmup sets in both squats and hack squats?
TP: I’d push maybe 10 reps, just to warm up.
IM: With something fairly light?
TP: Sure. But progressive enough to allow me to graduate to a heavier set, to a heavier weight the next set.
IM: Why were you working your way down in weight in the hack squats consistently like that?
TP: Well, I’ve trained all my life on instinct. Fred Hatfield watched me years later and said I was obviously very schooled in the acquisition of muscled and in muscle physiology. And I said to him, “Fred, I just do what feels right” (laughs). I was always the kind of bodybuilder who really followed his instincts – and my instincts led me to do things that were correct as far as muscle growth was concerned and what was effective specific to my body type and my fiber type.
IM: So this intermediate routine you’ve just described was what you followed until you started competing in bodybuilding contests?
TP: Yes, I’d say I followed this program for about four or five years – from age 17 to about 21 or 22. I started competing as a powerlifter originally. My first bodybuilding contest was in about 1973, so I actually started competing whole I was still doing this intermediate routine. In fact, I stayed with this routine right up till the time I moved to California, in 1977. By that time I had already won the Mr. Michigan title at age 19, finished second in the Teenage Mr. America and placed high in the Mr. America contest. So I competed in quite a few contests while I was still on this routine, although I didn’t compete that often, because I was busy studying for exams and working full-time as well – usually as a gym instructor and selling memberships. Then, after I moved to California, I switched to what you could call my advanced leg routine.
IM: Given the awesome leg development you ultimately achieved, something rather dramatic must have started happening immediately after you got into serious leg work.
TP: It became almost a special sport to me – a different sport from bodybuilding. The squat rack became like the altar, where life and death would pass in front of your eyes, and you looked forward to that every squat workout.
IM: So this was really, really tough training you were doing.
TP: Very tough, but I responded very well to very hard training, and I became motivated to train harder because the harder I trained, the more strength and leg development I attained. So it was like, “God, how hard can I train? How much do I want to grow?”
IM: You started your bodybuilding career and progressed to the national level when you were lifting back east. When did you move to California?
TP: In 1977 for the Mr. America contest, but I came out here to live in ’78.
IM: At that point what contests had you won?
TP: Mr. Michigan. I had been second in the Teenage Mr. America . . . I competed in the Mr. America in ’76, ’77 and ’78. and I never did win the Mr. America, although I won Best Legs almost all the time when they had that category. I usually came in first or second in my class – the Short Class back then. Ron Teufel was my biggest rival.
Prior to the ’78 America, which was my last Mr. America, I trained a lot more to balance my upper body to my lower body because my legs had begun to over-shadow my upper body, and I almost won the America, but Tony Pearson was picked as the winner. Ten minutes later the judging panel changed, and we had the Mr. America posedown to select who was going to go to the Universe to represent the United States. And I was able to win the Mr. America posedown, beating Tony Pearson 10 minutes after he won the Mr. America.
IM: What would you say was the most significant change you made in your leg training when you moved to California?
TP: I trained my legs less frequently and no longer consistently did the low-rep workouts with maximal weights in the squat. So I trained less frequently and was able to up the intensity, but I did that by doing higher reps while still using heavy weights. And the less I emphasized leg training in terms of training frequency and doing low reps with maximal weights, the more vascular, the more separated, the more detailed and the more polished my legs became.
So starting in ’78 I focused on not doing the real heavy leg work that I did previously, although I would still go heavy. I mean. back then I was still able to put 495 on the bar and do 15 reps in the squat. But I would concentrate on reps – I started concentrating more on reps, rather than maximum weight, in my leg training after ’78.
IM: You said that in your intermediate routine, you would perhaps do 495 to 500 pounds for two or three reps in the squat.
TP: Right. That was intermediate. That was probably the best I could do during the intermediate stage.
IM: But later you were actually capable of doing 495 for something like 15 reps?
TP: Yeah All of a sudden I came out to California, and, you know, I walk in the gym in the morning, the sunlight was shooting in the gym, Robby Robinson was over in the corner doin’ those little baby presses he does with a tiny barbell, lookin’ unbelievable! You know, muscles hangin’ out of his shirt. All those other big-name bodybuilders were there – Arnold, Franco, Ken Waller, Danny Padilla. And I was just so inspired and pumped up, it’s like energy came from within. And pretty soon I was able to take a weight which was a very heavy double or triple during my intermediate days, and now I was able to do reps with that – 15 reps. It was unbelievable!
IM: You’re saying that the ambience had such a dramatic effect on your strength, endurance and performance?
TP: Oh, yeah! And it still does. First of all, there’s energy here. I knew I was supposed to be here before I moved out here. I somehow knew that it was my destiny. I love passion. I love excitement. I love feeling good about stuff and being plugged in. I love feeling in tune and in line and centered in that sense.
California gives that to me on a continual basis, and I was smacked in the face with it back in 1977 when I came here. I came out to California, walked in Gold’s Gym and World Gym, and it was like – Wow! This is where I wanna be! I could just touch a weight and grow! I was around the best in the world on a daily basis, rather than just reading about these characters. Here I was training with Danny Padilla, Arnold, Robby Robinson, Dave Draper – I mean, it was extraordinarily energizing. Whether they knew it or not, I just picked up on their energy.
IM: So perhaps it was comparable to a baseball player reaching the major leagues after playing in the minors? Or playing in Yankee Stadium for the first time?
TP: There you go. To me it felt like, Oh, this is the epitome of what I’ve been thinking about all those years when it was snowing back in Detroit and I was training in the dungeons back there. I wanted to be in California, I knew I was supposed to be there, I could just smell success and taste success. Every weekend someone from the gym was winning a contest. And I just thought, “Well, my turn is coming up,” and it sure as hell did, as you know.
IM: After moving to California, you did squats, hack squats and what other exercises for you legs?
TP: I would usually only add leg extensions before a contest. But as I developed more of an advanced routine, I decided I was only going to train legs once a week. I was trying to de-emphasize my leg girth, if you will, and put more energy into my upper body. In fact, I squatted every other week – only twice a month – and I got progressively stronger in the squat, which was almost mind-boggling, scary. It’s a mystery to me, and to most of my training partners to this day how that happened.
As I began squatting twice a month, I would do reps on both days usually, instead of doing one heavy workout and one rep workout, as I was doing during the intermediate phase. And on the other leg day I would do leg extensions – my own specialized version – and hack squats. I also began using Nautilus machines for the first time on the leg curl.
During the advanced routine the workload was cut dramatically, but the intensity was increased in almost the same proportion. Consequently, the intensity went to the point where I could actually feel a muscle begin to tear from the bone, and I’d quit the set. I was able to take intensity that far – you know, I was careful not to injure myself. I needed more recuperation time. Because the intensity level was so increased and at such a high level, I couldn’t recuperate that fast. I couldn’t squat and train legs every week or twice a week. And I developed that kind of attitude and understanding about my leg training.
During the height of my career as a far as the advanced level was concerned, I did 635 for 15 below-parallel rep in the squat prior to the ’86 Mr. Olympia. I mean, 15 perfect reps.
TP: That was only weeks before a contest mind you. So I really wasn’t training for strength at that time at all. But my ability and endurance factor went way up, my intensity went way up to the point where I can remember lying on the floor after a set of squats feeling like somebody was stabbing knives in my legs. It was extremely painful, but I always had a high pain threshold – or I probably should say I developed a high pain threshold over the years.
But again, the focus in my advanced leg training was not on workload; it was on intensity and on isolation and on instinct.
IM: So even though your thigh development had reached a maximum perhaps as far as sheer size or girth by the end of the intermediate phase of training, your leg training during the advanced stage was even more demanding. You really took it to the outer limits.
TP: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I would go further than I ever had in the past. Sometimes after a set of rep-squats during the advanced routine I would lie on the floor gasping for air, and I would think to myself: Jeez, what if I don’t make it back? What if I don’t recover from this tremendous oxygen debt I’m in right now? And I knew I always would, but sometimes I felt like, my God, I could have a heart attack.
But to me it’s like I had to function within that red zone – like a Porsche has to function at the higher RPMs. For me, to attain the higher, freaky levels of extreme leg development, I had to explore the realm of risk. And risk to me is associated with any successful venture. Especially with exploration – where someone has never gone before.
IM: You never injured yourself?
TP: Oh, I injured little things here and there as far as the legs were concerned. I have torn my fascia, a thin sheath which covers the muscle underneath the skin, and I had to train around that. I have torn that numerous times. But I never tore a muscle, no, I may have you know, slightly jarred a little muscle in my leg biceps once, but never to the point where it was permanently damaged.
IM: You said earlier that you did leg extensions only before a contest. How long before a contest and why just before a contest?
TP: Well, I felt that by squatting continually, I was encouraging leg growth. The muscles were becoming larger; however, I could not produce the desired muscle separation and definition just by squatting. So I found that by not squatting for a number of weeks or even a couple of months, especially prior to a bodybuilding event, I could make my legs become much more refined, much more polished. You could see muscles you didn’t you didn’t see before. Of course, you have to squat to get there with your overall leg development, but I would conclude squatting anywhere from tow weeks to two months prior to an event.
IM: And just do leg extensions?
TP: That would be about it, yeah. Sometimes hack squats but not usually.
IM: And this is the routine that you stayed with really for the rest of your competitive career until you . . .
TP: (finishes) Retired from competition in ’86, right.
IM: Now let’s get to the specifics. With squats, for instance, how many sets would you typically do?
TP: Let’s take one month as an example. There are four weeks in a month. The first week and the third week I would do squats. And I would go into the gym on the first and the third week on a predetermined leg day, okay? And I would go in relying on my instincts really – I mean, I wouldn’t go in to train with any specific weights, I would just do what felt right for that day. At one point that was, you know, 635 for 15 below-parallel reps. Other times it was 495 for 25 or even 30 reps. You know, I never counted reps – my partners usually did.
But I would usually only do about two sets that we counted. I would work up in weight – I mean, to get to 495, obviously I wouldn’t just come in the gym and put 495 on the bar. I’d do like 135 for a set of 15 reps, 225 for a set of 10, 315 for a set of 10, 405 for a set of five or six reps and then eventually 495. So it took me four sets to get to that one rep-set. And then after the rep-set I’d usually do another rep-set, which was four, five, six sets total.
But on the two rep-sets the attitude that I had back then was that my life had to pass in front of my eyes. I wanted to climb to that point.
And if I couldn’t get to that point, I was disappointed and frustrated and extremely angry at myself, and I would make sure I got to that point every squat workout.
When I say you life passed before in front of your eyes, I mean you go to the point here you get 10 reps and then somehow you manage to get 15 or 20. It’s just conjuring up the deep-rooted emotions and the passion and the energy that you have within your body and your soul and your mind to push the weight up one more time and one more time and one more time. It’s very demanding to so that with heavy weights, but I would endeavor to get to that point.
IM: That’s hardcore stuff.
TP: I don’t mean to be painting a picture that’s not real – to me this was very real. And to got the gym that morning would be a very scary thing. I’d be shaking going to the gym. And I’d get there and my heart was pounding, I could barely breath normally. Sometimes I would concentrate on slowing my heart rate down and just try to relax. But once the workout was over, once I accommodated my expectancy and got to that point and went through a workout like that, I felt fulfilled. I had my training partner tell me about it because usually I wasn’t aware of what was goin’ on; it would be almost like I went somewhere. I went somewhere to like a special place. I explored a terrain or a feeling or a style of training that was never done before, and that’s what I wanted to do.
IM: It sounds like the intensity that were generating was in a class by itself.
TP: Well, I don’t want to say that no one else is capable of that. I’m sure there are people who can do that and there are people who can do that now. I just want to say that that’s what I was doing back then, and that’s what was most important to me back then. And it took me a lot of years to develop that kind of intensity. It wasn’t something that I read about in a bodybuilding magazine and just started doing right from the outset.
You know, I wasn’t capable of actually pushing my body and my mind that far at the beginning of my career. It took 15 years for my body to be trained to that point, for my nervous system to really be trained to that point. I mean, after a squat set like that, I can remember my back bleeding. The bar was real heavy and I think I had a heavy scab on my back from squatting previously and the scab broke open. I remember blood going down the shirt. I mean, it’s crazy stuff we did, but was just the feeling . . .
And one time at Armento’s Gym back in Detroit when I was doing an intermediate workout, I remember my nose started bleeding – there was blood all over the place – but I kept on squatting.
IM: Was the actual technique you used – i.e., the strict, up-and-down Olympic style of squatting – a major factor in the awesome leg development you achieved: As opposed to, say, if you’d been using the less strict, forward-leaning powerlifting-squat technique?
TP: I did use the straight, up-and-down, Olympic-style technique. I was taught how to squat by Olympic lifters and I definitely feel that my thigh development was achieved through the practice of strict, high-bar Olympic squats, not – repeat, NOT – powerlifting style.
I’ve tried to squat like a powerlifter on occasion just to find out what it was all about, to educate myself along the lines of that performance pattern. And there’s definitely a lot more butt and lower back involvement in the movement. Instead of the bar moving up and down, it sort of moves at an angle.
Let me put it this way, powerlifting to me is like football, and what we do in bodybuilding is, we play basketball. In other words, they’re two entirely different sports. And using the powerlifting squat style, in my mind, would never be conducive to developing great thighs, because the legs don’t really come into play. In a power squat my back and my butt work substantially, and my legs just seem to be there for leverage.
IM: Obviously you would recommend that a bodybuilder adopt the strict, Olympic-style technique of squatting.
TP: Yes, beyond any shadow of a doubt. I wholeheartedly suggest and encourage anybody reading this article to do high-bar, Olympic style squats.
IM: High-bar – in other words, with the bar high on your back?
TP: Yes. And not to squat like a powerlifter but to squat like an Olympic lifter. Or should I say squat like a bodybuilder, putting all the stress on the thighs.
Occasionally, I would walk in the gym and, you know, my instinct led me to do something different besides just the two rep-sets of squats. I can remember going into the gym occasionally on a squat day, and I would do, say, 585 for a set of 10, okay? And maybe squeeze out 12. Lower the weight to 495 and get as many reps as I could. Sometimes 25 to 30 reps. Lower the weight to 405 and get as many reps as I could – sometimes another 30. Lower the weight again after, you know, maybe four or five minutes rest, and with 315 do as many reps as I could. Lower the weight again to 225, do reps until I couldn’t move. Finish up with 135 – I was barely able to stand up. That was one example of one workout I did.
But in doing squats that intensely, followed by leg curls and then calf work – I always finished every leg workout by training calves – I couldn’t even think about coming back in the gym and training legs for another 10 to 12 days.
IM: You explained that you worked on the squat the first and third week of the month. I take it on the second and fourth week you did hack squats?
TP: Hack squats and leg extensions – and leg curls. Well, let me revamp that. On the squat day, after the squat workout I was usually so fatigued, I couldn’t do hack squats. I couldn’t do leg extensions either. So I’d do some leg curls on the squat days. And for me to get on the old Nautilus leg curl machine and have my training partner give me negatives, isometrics, forced reps, positives, partial isometrics – my leg biceps would grow like crazy. The squat was elemental to my leg biceps growing as well. But the Nautilus leg curl machine, I could look at that machine and my leg biceps would grow. It was unbelievable.
IM: Could you explain what you meant when you said that the squat was elemental to your leg biceps growth?
TP: I’m saying there was a lot of influence to the leg biceps in doing the squat. What I’m getting at is that the strict, Olympic-style squat has been conducive to my total leg development, including the development of my calves and leg biceps. There’s definitely an influence on the leg biceps when you’re squatting, especially at the depth to which I squat, so my butt almost touches the floor, okay? But without even addressing that point, there is some influence to your hamstring muscles as you flex the frontal-thigh muscles, or quadriceps. You can’t bend down without getting some leg biceps involvement.
IM: Of course, to really work the hamstrings, or leg biceps, directly, you would do leg curls.
TP: Right. I would do that after squats on my advanced-level squat days. And on the leg curls you’re looking at four to six sets.
IM: What number of reps?
TP: Reps were anywhere from seven to 20. But I might be doing the whole stack on one set and only five plates the next set. I was using a lot of techniques to make the exercise much harder. One set of leg curls would always include positives. One set would always include negatives. One set would always include forced negatives. One set would always include isometrics – someone holding down on the machine until I couldn’t pull anymore. I’d train midrange, low range, the high range. I’d have someone actually push against the weight and give me extra resistance at different positions in the range of motion.
It wasn’t just a matter of doing sets and reps. It was like making the muscle scream for mercy Leg curls were always performed in this way.
I would do the leg extensions on the leg extension machine Joe Gold had designed. Have you seen the old-fashioned one, the one in the middle room at Gold’s Gym, Venice? I would start with reps, or course, and I would just do the extensions very slowly and very precisely – all the way up as high as I could and then lower it slowly.
But I was fortunate enough to be able to do leg extensions on this machine. Joe Gold made this first machine. To me, it’s still the best leg extension machine that exists to this point in time. I used it the other day, and my legs immediately felt a response. There’s no leg extension machine in my opinion which comes close to Joe Gold’s original creation. I mean, Arnold’s fingerprints and Dave Draper’s handprints are on this thing, okay?
So I would do leg extensions, usually about an hour. I didn’t count the number, but it was usually an hour of sets. Sometimes 10, 20, 30 sets, where I would employ forced reps, isometrics, negatives, the same things I did in the leg curl. I had my old training partner Tony Martino stand in front of me and push the machine down and take it to different ranges of motion. I other words, I’d go to the top if the motion, and I’d say “Okay, now push!” and he’d push down as hard as he could and I’d fight back. I’d say, “Take it to the middle range,” and he’d push down halfway in the middle range. Then we’d take it to the low range. I’d yell to him what to do as my instincts told me.
And this leg extension machine became one of the best leg exercises I ever did – and still do. I’m getting excited just thinking about it (laughs).
IM: And after the leg extensions, you moved to the hack squat.
TP: Yes, the hack squat. Usually at that time I was barely able to stand up; I was pretty well blitzed. So I’d have my partner take me through the range of motion in the hack squats. I would usually only do about three sets, with maybe two 45s on each side, and he would push me through the entire range to accomplish maybe 20 to 25 reps. But I would stand on my toes and push my hips forward, much like a sissy squat, sort of a sissy hack squat. And I would do that very strictly and intensively to gather . . . well, I always imagined that I was swimming in the ocean, looking for more and more fish, and I had to gather up as many fish as I could. That was a visualization I used. You know, I had to keep grabbing more and more fish, and pretty soon there weren’t any fish left.
This vision was very important to me; it helped me train harder. Okay, when I first started the leg extensions, there were a lot of fish there, there was a lot of contractile strength there. As the contractile strength became less and less and less, it became harder to contract the muscle, and in my mind there were fewer and fewer fish left.
So as I went to the hack squats, you know, there were only a few fish left, and I could hardly contract the muscle at all at that point. In an effort to contract the muscle I had to have a training partner push me through the range of motion. Actually push the machine up and down to allow me to keep the muscle contracting. And he would take me to an even higher level of contraction at that point.
IM: So essentially you were doing forced reps in the hack squat.
TP: Exactly. And I wouldn’t stop until I felt that one more rep would tear the muscle from the bone. And at that point I would yell, “That’s it!”
IM: Again, how many reps and sets would you do on the hack squats?
TP: Three sets – roughly. Maybe 20 to 30 reps, and sometimes pausing. I’d finish the exercise, and I’d go halfway down and just pause – stay there without moving up or down. Or just move slightly. And have my partner help me do that.
The reps and the weights didn’t really matter – although on the leg extension machine I’d have a 100-pound plate placed on top of the stack. I mean, as much weight as I could possibly put on the machine would be on the machine.
IM: So obviously you were very, very strong in these exercises.
TP: Yes, but to me it got to the point where I really wasn’t concerned with reps or sets. I was concerned with contracting the muscle, and this fish visualization is something I made up in my own mind to help me contract the muscle. I had to become the muscle. My job was to grow. Any way I could put tension on the muscle, whether it be no reps, holding the weight at the top or the bottom of halfway, or anything to make the muscle respond and achieve more tension within the muscle, I would do.
IM: If you’d been pushed at the time to do one rep in a powerlifting squat, what do you think would have been your maximum?
TP: Well, I’d say with a little bit of training for a maximum lift I probably could have squatted just under a grand. And I wasn’t really trained as a strength athlete. Although I did train with Fred Hatfield last year, and I was able to do – what did I do? Eight plates (775 pounds) for a single. However, back then, if we’re looking at those years, ’85 to ’86, I think realistically 800 to 900 pounds would have been a predictable single. With some training specificity.
While it’s on my mind, let me explain that sometimes I would not do leg extensions first or I would do hack squats first. In fact, I’d usually mix it up according to my instinct. In some workouts I’d go on the hack squat machine first, and I would start with some warmup sets. I can remember doing reps and sets and partials and isometrics and half-reps, with my partner there helping me, to the point where I’d actually go somewhere. My mind would leave the gym.
It was a strange experience. But the reps were always quite high and the weights were very heavy. At that point I was able to put five 45 pound plates on each side and do 30 or 40 reps.
IM: The sheer mental and physical intensity that you established in your leg work, did this idea also carry over to your training for the other bodyparts?
TP: It sure did. I usually trained each bodypart like that. It was a lot of stress, a lot of mental stress, but it was something that I enjoyed; however, by ’86 I had to cut back and retire because I couldn’t withstand the stress anymore. I mean, taking your body and pushing it that hard on a daily basis for, jeez, I don’t know how many years that was, almost 10 years as a pro – there was a time when you wanted to explore other realms of life and living. It ultimately becomes counterproductive to put that much stress on your nervous system. I think the hardest thing about training that hard is your nervous system has to recover all the time. And it’s very difficult to continue to do that for years on end. But that’s how I trained, and if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do it any differently.
IM: Many bodybuilders believe in doing a tremendous variety of exercises, the idea being to hit a muscle from every conceivable angle. Yet in your case you basically built those unbelievable thighs with only three exercises. What is your philosophy on this point?
TP: Throughout my career my training has always been centered on very few exercises. But rather than change the exercises to accommodate different degrees of stress development or tension development, I would change the way I performed each exercise. One day I would do reps, one day I would do heavier weights. I could change the way I was holding the weights in my hands or the way I was squatting. I could change the position. There are a lot of things you can do with one exercise that can make it like 15 exercises. That’s something people don’t usually relate to. They’d rather change the exercise. And sometimes it’s more fun, depending upon your personality, to change the exercise rather than changing the technique or the style or the way in which you perform the exercise.
IM: In other words, there are really an endless number of variables in how you can do a given exercise.
TP: Exactly. The speed of the motion may change. Or the exact way you push the weight, turn the dumbbell or stand or that sort of thing.
IM: Is there anything else that we haven’t covered here that’s really germane to this topic?
TP: I think you’ve pretty well encapsulated it all in the last couple of questions you’ve asked me as far as the intensity and instinct being the important factors. But beyond that I have to add one more item – and that would be passion. Having a clear-cut passion and a need, an innate need to explore that passion. That’s what fuels your endeavor.