Writer, Bodybuilder, Powerlifter, Training Guru – and friend
15 Mar 2007
One of the neat things about publishing Natural Champion magazine is that we get to meet some nice and interesting people and even form friendships. The subject of this month’s Introducing… column is one such person. Greg Sushinsky is definitely nice, definitely interesting, highly intelligent – and I’m proud to call him a friend.
When I approached Greg about being the subject of a feature article in Natural Champion he at first modestly demurred, saying something like he didn’t think he would be an interesting ‘read’. When I persisted, assuring him that he would not only be interesting but had a wealth of information to share, he graciously provided the following information in professional and perfectly formatted form.
The only thing we don’t have is a photo, but we’ll let you readers draw your own mental images as you meet writer, bodybuilder, powerlifter and friend – Greg Sushinky.
I am one of you. I am just like you. I started out bodybuilding probably like many of you did, when I was 16 years old in 1968, because I wanted to get bigger and stronger and gain weight. I was 5’ 11 ½” tall and weighed 133 pounds. I just began lifting with no more of a plan than getting bigger or stronger. I learned how to lift from reading an old George Kirkley book, and followed the exercises accordingly. My parents were very tolerant of it, my brother and sister, too, even though they probably thought I was crazy. I come from a family of great people, though, who always care and are always supportive.
I trained really hard, and tried to learn as much as I could. I was very disciplined, and never missed workouts. Eventually, I started to get results, but much of the conventional stuff and even the hard gainer stuff at the time didn’t work for me, so I was always experimenting, making stuff up, trying different things. The same for nutrition. In six years of drug-free training, by the time I graduated from college, I grew to 6’ 1” tall, weighed 215-220 and was powerlifting and bodybuilding.
I had fallen into a great atmosphere for training at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where I went to college, so there were a lot of older lifters and bodybuilders who helped me. Again, I learned everything I could. I also continued to create different workouts, and I included some stuff which would be considered cross-training or standard today, but it wasn’t then. Later, I informally helped other lifters and bodybuilders with their training and nutrition, and I shared some of the different things I was trying with them. These things worked for many of them, also. Things I adapted for other athletes worked, too.
I trained and competed for powerlifting, along with my bodybuilding, and I had strict training lifts or sets of three reps with 470 below parallel in the squat, I deadlifted a couple of reps with 500, I did rows for sets of five with 250 or more, things like that, just wraps and a belt, no other equipment. But I was no strongman—and I was a lousy bencher, even though I took a second in the 220’s in a powerlifting meet (where I tied for the highest deadlift). I was actually more interested in bodybuilding, and did the strength work for that, but while I had gotten stronger, my bodybuilding results were disappointing.
I graduated from college with a degree in philosophy, where I had met and married the girl who’s my one-and-only wife, Marsha. She’s the best part of college, the best part of my life still. After college, I thought about going on to grad school but instead wanted to pursue my lifelong dream to make it as a writer, which was a struggle. I also further re-thought my training, and began to train against the conventional wisdom which was strength and all-out efforts, and my bodybuilding gains exploded. Whereas I had a hard time keeping weight on before, with many of my training lifts and sets being accomplished at a bodyweight of 205, I was able to keep my weight at 215 or higher, once hitting 230, and now I could get lean and fairly cut at 200-215, whereas before I would have been lucky to hit 180 or 190. With a small frame and thin structure, I had certainly figured out what worked for me. I had far better development, definition, shape and proportion, and I figured out how to get muscle to grow more easily on me than before. Then I had to see whether my approaches worked for other people, as that is the key to becoming a coach, trainer or teacher for bodybuilding or anything.
When people ask me about how my training methods or principles differ from the conventional, it’s easier to show than to explain, but I’ll try to give you an idea, an overview or how I approach things. Let me state at the outset, I use anything conventional that’s productive, such as usual sets and reps schemes, along with heavy, medium or even light weights when appropriate. The difference is how I utilize those principles and the less traditional stuff I’ll use.
The first thing to know is that strength and muscle development are not the same, and that this concept should be incorporated in every drug-free bodybuilder’s training. Remember this if nothing else: bodybuilding is bodybuilding, lifting is lifting. They can overlap, but they are not the same physiologically and they aren’t even the same sports. And drug-free training is different than drug users’ training. You must learn what you can and can’t use from that kind of training. These are not just principles that apply to me, but are universal, though their application may vary. It doesn’t mean, for example, that there aren’t natural bodybuilders who do best on strength work or all-out sets to failure, but most don’t, and most do better with a highly individualized plan which takes into account their structure, metabolism, and the constant feedback of all exercises, sets, reps, volume, rest, and so forth, and how their physique is developing; this last part is crucial, often misunderstood. And I have known of natural bodybuilders with poor genetics who used what I would call very light weights for lots of reps and sets who grew tremendous physiques. That certainly changed my thinking.
Also, working as hard as you can, whether on one all-out set or five sets, is rarely the best. Some thrive, most of us don’t. Many go backwards, de-train and de-condition. Human physiology trumps bodybuilding: no other sport, even other so-called anaerobic ones, successfully teaches one all-out effort, or all-out effort all the time. The human body simply doesn’t work that way. The human nervous system, even that of highly trained or elite athletes, does not positively respond long term to this.
Although modified, brief workouts can work, I also show other naturals how to go about incorporating volume—though certainly not twenty sets like the old steroid-users’ routines, and other modalities such as tension, contractions, stretching, along with some more innovative techniques and applications, what I call directed effort, as well as cardiovascular work (naturals notoriously hate cardio, to their detriment) and how to use fitness as a base. But it’s all a very directed approach. There are many forms of intensity and hard work. What exercises you do is highly important, but how you do them may be even more so. And drug-free trainers who play another sport, who occasionally or often include other physical activity, or (gasp!) stop lifting for a few weeks and do martial arts, stretching, soccer, basketball, running, bicycling, walking - you name it, any other physical activity - often do better.
This approach, I have come to see, is critical for maximizing fitness, probably health, too. And it can help your bodybuilding—drug-free bodybuilding, which is, or should be, vastly different from drug bodybuilding. The more fit you become, the better you can progress for years; you won’t stagnate after two or three or five years. It’s a foundation and a basic state to return to often; this type of training is used by athletes, and I treat natural bodybuilding as a sport and see natural bodybuilders as athletes, or potential athletes. Working out twice a week for five minutes a day with a couple of all-out sets and sitting on the couch the rest of the week, will de-condition most drug-free bodybuilders; they’ll lose fitness, often even strength, and usually muscle.
Bodybuilders are always thinking and talking about how much they can lift or will lift, or about cutting up or vascularity, or diet. They need to think much more about training, about deep concentration—focus, training the muscles, developing the muscles, individually and synergistically, about maximizing shape, about how it all goes together and what it should look like. They need to think more about body proportion, shape of the muscle groups, and apply this to their training. Simply lifting the weight is primitive, inefficient and often partially productive at best. A more efficient, complete training approach includes much more. No other sport has a training protocol that is as simplistic, which says, “lift as heavy and hard as you can, all the time, and you’ll grow.” How can a beginner who is weak and thin or fat and out of shape lift heavy? It’s meaningless; it’s worse than nonsense, it’s dangerous.
What I try to teach or how I train others is to progress people from the beginning, or at least where they are now, train their bodies and metabolisms, then bring them along without injuring them, and prepare the body to lift heavier and get stronger if that is the direction they want to go, or for their sport for other athletes. For natural bodybuilders, we train the muscles. We are after development. We strive to build and shape muscle, always, for bodybuilders. We cultivate a muscle-building environment for bodybuilders via their preparation, metabolism, then training and nutrition. And at every juncture, we try to use every workout, every rep, every set, to build muscle, to improve proportion, to add shape to the muscle (yes, you can!), to improve under par muscle groups, to see that efforts and energy aren’t wasted or thrown away. Sometimes this means lower or higher reps, or different exercises and tempos, completely different workout styles or principles. Sometimes we segment the work, sometimes we bundle things up, and work on many things, just as other sports training involves. Ultimately, the methods I advocate teach you to learn everything about your body and its responses so that you can teach yourself.
I will say this: though I am not primarily a trainer, I have trained teenagers, beginning football players, advanced football players, other athletes, housewives, bodybuilders, powerlifters, fitness people, people who wanted to lose and gain weight, I’ve helped people who played other sports recreationally. All trained differently, all trained specifically. Some techniques overlap. Use those; use everything productive, don’t worry about where it came from. A soccer player should train differently than a Tae Kwan Do practitioner, but a soccer player can learn about running from a runner’s training, the runner can learn stretching from the martial artist, the martial artist fitness from the soccer player’s training. Do so. A bodybuilder should train differently than a powerlifter, yet learn what he can utilize from powerlifting and strength training, and vice versa. Learn what you must include, leave out, and what other things you must do instead. I explore everything, though, and borrow from one sport to another.
Nutrition, the same approach: ultimately, everybody responds individually. Some thrive on low-carb, others high carb. The Russian lifters basically didn’t have food, mostly vodka and stale bread if you believe the lore—but they know how to train the body (and the mind) for just about anything; indigenous people all over the world can be healthy, fit, lean and thrive on vastly different diets. There is no one ultimate, universal diet; human nutrition is far more complex, the human body far more adaptable, athletes and bodybuilders also. It’s easy to give people one diet for everybody, one workout for everybody, but it’s not truthful or best. The generalities: work hard, do productive exercises for your goals, eat a good, healthful diet, all are true but terribly frustrating in their lack of specificity. But that is where you begin.
I have an inclusive, eclectic style, rather than an exclusive one. Others eliminate all workouts and diets but the one or few they promote, I include everything that can be productive, healthy, safe and that people enjoy. I teach and encourage hard work but also how to balance that with active recovery and the development of recovery ability, something almost no one in bodybuilding teaches or believes can even exist. They think that doing nothing, complete inactivity, is the fullest and best understanding of recovery; it’s not. Other sports know well of active recovery, how to do it, how to make it work. I teach this for bodybuilders, I show them what to do to build up recovery ability.
All these things I’ve learned, some from many, many people, and I try to give credit where I can. Other things I’ve found more or less on my own, or have put together different combinations of things or techniques from other sports, and health research, but all of it can work, it’s in the application. Some of it may work for you, some may not. It’s worth searching, trying and teaching it.
As far as my personal journey as a powerlifter morphing into a bodybuilder, I went from sports, unstructured exercise to general weight-training first, to strength stuff, with some bodybuilding, to more powerlifiting, to more power-bodybuilding, finally to what I consider complete bodybuilding with adjunctive other sports and activities. That’s my personal evolution, and it’s given me a perspective to help train and teach others how they can maximize their potential, whether in lifting, other sports, bodybuilding or some combination.
Although I had become a far better bodybuilder than I was a powerlifter, I didn’t win any contests. Entering non-tested contests, I couldn’t keep up with that competition, and the natural federations were in their infancy, so I was getting out of competition as that started. Later, people urged me to enter the natural contests, but I had enough of competing, so I just kept training for myself, pursued my career and life outside of bodybuilding. Ironically, my physique continued to improve and became far better in the years after I stopped competing. That’s all due to learning and applying things better. The key is how far I have progressed from where I started; that and showing others how to do it, that’s what’s important to know, if anything, about my bodybuilding.
I became a published writer not only in bodybuilding magazines, writing articles on natural training and nutrition in the mainstream bodybuilding mags, but most of my writing actually is other than about bodybuilding and has been published in sports magazines and large circulation health and fitness publications. I also started doing some editing, which I continue to do. Later, I decided to branch out the training and instruction I did with not just articles, but a couple of small books, The Natural Bodybuilding Training Manual, and The Hard Gainer Report, which begin with general information, and progress people through training and nutrition templates that show them how to continue to do this. Now, at age 54, I still train avidly, try to improve. I try to stay lean at about 200. I continue my writing and instructing through my website. I continue to train and experiment and research and pass that along.
The future of my involvement with bodybuilding will see me continuing to train, to research, learn, write, teach via my articles and website, and get involved or support whatever good projects and people I can for natural bodybuilding and related fitness, nutrition and health. I would like to see a better future for the sport, and for the activity on a grass roots level. I am trying to do my bit, my small part, in contributing something constructive to bodybuilding that will see a different, better trend for changes in the coming years than we’ve seen in the last twenty-five or thirty years.
To that end, I think I’ll be less involved in the mainstream bodybuilding magazines. I already am, as they publish fewer and fewer articles on what is true natural training and nutrition, so I’ll be concentrating more on my work through my website, along with supporting or assisting others who are trying to make a better bodybuilding, including your Natural Champion online magazine, Arley, as well as Steve Speyrer’s Classic Anatomy Magazine, the websites of people such as the legendary bodybuilding writer Dennis Weis, Alan Palmieri, and many other good, committed people whom I don’t mean to slight by not naming.
I work whenever I can to feature a higher quality of writing, thinking, researching, experimenting regarding bodybuilding, and also toward developing a more critical, and self-critical—but civil—atmosphere surrounding the sport, a true sharing and discussing of information, of findings, of ideas. Preserving the best of our heritage, highlighting the best parts of the sport’s history and people, such as my friends Dan Lurie, Clarence Bass and Wayne Gallasch, is important, too. I also want to see bodybuilding become more of an actual sport, instead of the bizarre, quasi-underworld, semi-legitimate cultic activity it has become.
The more proportionate, shape-oriented physique, even for naturals, is what I’m interested in promoting. Bodybuilding has to earn respect and a new image by actually going out and changing itself, making itself into more of a legitimate sport and activity, by promoting and developing itself in a constructive way, so those are the areas I’m interested in. That’s the work I want to do.
There are many good people out there in bodybuilding, and we all want to make it better. We’re all in this together. That’s how I see it. I was once one of those bewildered beginners doing push-ups on my bedroom floor trying hard to figure it out, to get somewhere. I am still one of you. I am still just like you.
We want to sincerely thank Greg Sushinksy for sharing his story and his training wisdom with us. To order Greg’s books The Hard Gainer Report and The Natural Bodybuilding Manual, which we highly recommend, or to read more articles by Greg, visit www.gregsushinsky.com.
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