Recently yet another super-heavyweight Iron Immortal died from a heart attack at age forty-five or thereabouts. Typically, when I read of these tragedies I search my memory banks and then write some sort of tribute. Rather than eulogize yet another fallen warrior, for whom it’s too late, and at the risk of sounding presumptuous, I thought a slightly different approach might be appropriate and perhaps even helpful in preventing a future tragedy. It is my contention that a shockingly large percentage of retired national and international-level powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters eat too much, do nothing insofar as cardiovascular training and as a direct result unnecessarily risk premature death.
Retired super heavyweight lifters are particularly susceptible to this fatal phenomenon. Typically, the ‘at risk’ big-man lifter reduces or quits weight training – but doesn’t quit the enormous eating habits that got him big enough and dense enough to handle world record poundage. Super-heavyweight powerlifters consume too many calories and in particular they eat way too much saturated fat.
Food is broken down for energy within the body. A gram of fat contains nine calories. A gram of protein or carbohydrate contains four calories per gram. For a man intent on bulking-up as large as possible as fast as possible, fat calories, dense and compact, are the ticket. Fat calories pack twice the caloric bounce-per-ounce as protein or carb calories and boy do they ever taste good! Allowing taste to dictate our diet can be fatal. High fat food is delicious and it gives food a wonderful, seductive flavor. The bulking lifter can eat twice as many calories when they choose fat over protein or carbohydrates.
The problem is that dietary fat is easily converted to body fat. To use an automobile analogy, the big lifter develops a body akin to that of a 1967 Cadillac Eldorado – but the heart muscle of the lifter does not enlarge to accommodate the increased bulk. Metaphorically, the lifter has a heart designed to power a 1967 VW Beetle but his 65-horsepower heart motor now motivates a 5000-pound Cadillac body: what an incredible strain on his little blood-pump. For a few short years, hugeness is okay: the human body is incredibly resilient, but if the lifter doesn’t pare the pounds eventually the little heart muscle can suffer a blowout. Or will wear out from overuse.
The miraculous heart muscle pulsates 60-90 times a minute, sending blood coursing through the veins and capillaries to receptive muscles and organs with the precision and regularity of a fine Swiss watch. A hundred pounds (or more) of extra bodyweight will stress the tiny heart to the breaking point. It’s a hell-of-a dilemma; to reach the top of the powerlifting game the lifter needs density in relation to their height.
Ever notice how few tall Powerlifters reach the international level? To achieve the requisite density a tall lifter (over six-foot) would need weigh 400-pounds to match the density-per-inch the typical under-six foot super heavyweight achieves. Most people who meet top powerlifter are amazed at how short they are in relation to their weight. To maximize leverage, lifters need density-per-inch-of-height and super heavyweights, unencumbered by weight divisions, always have an effective avenue available to increase their density-per-inch: eat more food and get bigger.
Big men feel they need dietary fat, ‘dirty’ calories, in order to gain the sheer bulk necessary to compete at the national and international level. As my old coach Hugh Cassidy used to preach, a serious super-heavyweight lifter can always “eat his way through a sticking point”. Of course when Hugh retired he dropped from 300-pounds to 190-pounds bodyweight inside a year. Cassidy was no dummy (a powerlifting genius) and had the sense to reduce his caloric intake when the whistle sounded and the game was over. A lot don’t and the consequences are apparently disastrous.
That giant lifter who happily scarfs down saturated fat, motivating that Eldorado body around with that VW engine, eventually has a second deadly complication rear its ugly head. Saturated fat produces plaque and as it floats through the bloodstream plaque adheres to the arterial walls leading to and from the heart. Over time the tube diameter becomes constricted with plaque buildup and when it clogs completely (assuming you don’t die from heart spasms) a roto-rooter (angeoplastsy) balloon procedure or by-pass surgery is required to open constricted passageways.
It’s a dastardly double whammy: the lifter’s diet adds bodyweight – creating a stress-load on the over-taxed heart pump and the fat in the lifter’s diet reduces the efficiency of the already taxed heart by constricting the blood flow. It’s a deadly one-two combination. Often the whole situation is further complicated when the lifter ceases hard training. Now sedentary, his high caloric intake accelerates body fat accumulation at an astonishingly fast rate. If left unchecked this scenario will lead to health problems as surely as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
I once helped a 350-pound super heavyweight take second place at the USPF Nationals and thereby secure a slot on the IPF world championship team. He was elated and afterwards we decided to have room service send up victory pizza. I was staying on the second floor and the elevators were acting up so we decided to walk the four mini-flights to the second floor. It was an easy climb but our IPF-destined lifter was gassed like he’d just climbed Mount Everest without using an oxygen tank. He was far more blasted from the 22-step walk-up than his 881-squat or 750-deadlift. He heaved and gasped like a coal miner with black lung after smoking a Camel and took a full thirty minutes before he recovered.
I remember how when the Pizzas came he knelt down on the floor at the foot of the bed. He took his Pizza Hut extra-large, set it on the bed, opened the box, still kneeing, placed his elbows on the bed and commenced to chow-down. His huge distended stomach hung all the way to the floor and there was no daylight showing between his gut and the sunlight shining in the open window behind him. Looking like a pregnant rhino, his face hovered a scant six-inches above the pizza box as he devoured the entire thing in 10-minutes flat, steam shovel style, like he was strip mining a hill for coal. He gobbled his pepperoni and sausage and then went scavenging for leftovers from the other three boxes. Feeling better he took a nap.
I once asked George Hector how it felt to be able to squat 975 and deadlift 840 weighing 360. “For two days a year, at the National and World championships, it’s great – the other 363 days a year it sucks!” George ran into health problems (phlebitis) reduced down to 242 and set a slew of world records. But wise men like George and Hugh and John Kuc are the exceptions, not the rule. Too many huge guys are attached to their ‘sea food’ diet and it comes back to bite ’em at some point.
And it needn’t be that way. Incorporating two lifestyle changes, substitution dieting and light cardiovascular training, can spell the difference, literally, between life and death.
DIET: Rather than try and get a red-blooded powerlifter on a fancy-dan bodybuilder diet – one which they won’t adhere to anyway – we offer the substitution diet for your consideration. All of us have bad foods we naturally gravitate towards (those high in fat and sugar) and we all have some good foods (high in protein) that we like. The idea is to identify the ‘good’ foods and substitute them for the ‘bad foods’ you currently consume in quantity. The beauty of this approach is that you never feel hungry because anytime you have a craving for bad food you eat a substantial amount of good food in its place. You smother the hunger and satiate the desire.
Plus, every time you replace a fat food with a protein or carb food, you can eat the same volume of food while cutting your calories in half (9 calories per gram of fat versus only 4 calories per gram for protein). A gram is a gram and if you previously ate a quart of Ben & Jerry’s or a sixteen-ounce pizza, you now may eat an equal volume of protein or carbohydrates and eliminate artery-clogging saturated fat while simultaneously cutting your calories in half. It is a good deal: you reduce the deadly saturated fat with muscle-building protein or natural carbohydrates and still reduce overall calories. Don’t eat flour carbs like cakes, bread or pastry. Stick to grains, rice, vegetables and potatoes.
Clean protein actually stimulates the basal metabolic rate, causing the body to burn more calories as it gears up to meet the challenge of digesting protein. Dietary fat, on the other hand, is easily compartmentalized into fat storage. A note of caution: avoid protein foods that are loaded with saturated fat. Fish, chicken (minus the skin), lean beef, goat, turkey, organ meats, egg whites, skim milk and protein powder are great sources of clean protein.
Man-made carbohydrates like bread, pasta and pastries will cause the body to secrete insulin. Insulin spikes cause carb calories to be converted and compartmentalized into fat storage instead of being used for energy. Avoid them. Natural carbohydrates have a far lesser impact on insulin and are recommended as the preferred carb sources. Fiber carbs actually dampen insulin spikes and a diet high in clean protein and fiber, low in refined carbs and moderate in starchy carbs, is the fastest way to lose lard.
CARDIO CONDITIONING FOR POWERLIFTERS: Powerlifters take a dim view of cardio training – aerobics – and contemptuously consider cardiovascular training effete, irrelevant and at odds to their stated purpose: maximizing size and strength. And there is a good case to support that viewpoint. But we are talking aerobics for health, not strength.
Aerobics, it is widely felt, weakens a competitive powerlifter and any benefits are offset with negatives. Few hard core lifters would be caught dead riding an exer-cycle, walking a treadmill or jumping up and down on a stair-stepper. The broad consensus among the power elite is that cardio is counterproductive to the stated goal. Yet, it has been scientifically and medically proven that three to five, twenty-minute sessions at 60% (or more) of age-related heart rate maximum per week will perform miracles for the heart, lungs, internal organs and glands.
Cardiovascular training flushes the human plumbing system: capillaries, veins, tubes, heart and lungs all benefit from regular aerobic exercise. Internal organs strengthen and improve function when subjected to regular, systematic doses of aerobic exercise. There is a compromise solution for the lifter intent on losing lard. There is a type of aerobic exercise that provides great cardio stimulation without being so intense as to interfere with strength building – walking.
LOW STRESS AEROBIC ACTIVITY: A big man with little or no background in cardio training can hit 70% of their age-related heart rate maximum with a brisk walk around the block. And that’s all that’s needed. No need to join a health spa, no need to purchase an expensive exercise bike or treadmill, forget all that stuff and get outdoors and take a brisk walk. Walk outside for ten minutes as quick as you can then put a forefinger on your carotid artery or wrist pulse and count the beats for six seconds. Multiply this number by 10 to determine how fast your heart is beating. Then compare this to your age-related heart rate maximum to determine your aerobic intensity. What’s the formula? Simple: 220 minus your age are your 100% heart rate maximum. Then determine 70% of this number.
AGE 30 40 50
100% 190 180 170
70% 133 126 119
60% 114 108 102
Start with a ten-minute walk at 60%. Put on a WalkMan, get outside and take a good fast walk. Do this three of four times a week on days that you don’t lift. If you no longer lift, get back in the saddle. Add a few minutes per walking session until you are hitting twenty minutes per session. When you can walk for twenty minutes at 60% try to bump that up to 65% and eventually 70% or more. Increase the intensity by walking faster and swinging your arms a little more. Suck in that good outdoor oxygen and push a little. 3-4 sessions a week at 60-70% of age related heart rate maximum would do wonders for the internal plumbing of a cardio-challenged lifter. Walking avoids the bone-jarring pain of jogging or running – no rips or tears from walking. Don’t po-pah walking – I have had occasion to interview bodybuilding dominator Dorian Yates for Muscle & Fitness and one thing struck me : Yates’ aerobic program often consisted of a brisk walk around his posh neighborhood with his dogs. In the off-season Yates would walk for thirty minutes three or four times a week. Weighing 300, he had no problem hitting 70% of age related heart rate maximum using a brisk walking pace. Unlike his American competitors, many of whom spent two hours a day on bikes and stair-steppers, the bull-strong Yates felt that too much cardio affected his weight training and he preferred to confine his aerobics to off-day walks. Wise advice that is applicable to the massive powerlifter who wants to incorporate some health-preserving cardio into their training.
Lifters who walk in conjunction with powerlifting report improved recovery and better digestion along with a nice increase in appetite. The metabolism kicks up when you undertake a brisk walk as this stimulates the digestive process. Food is processed better and when saturated fat is cutback the athlete sees an almost over-night improvement in the way they look and feel. If fat calories are replaced with ‘clean’ calories muscle is retained while the life threatening effects of body fat and artery constriction are improved. Confine cardio training to low-impact walking done on off-days and no strength loss should occur: on the contrary, the lifter will be able to train harder and longer as a result of their new-found endurance and improved nutrient assimilation. All around it’s a good deal – particularly when the alternative is so dire and bleak. So take a chance and take a walk. Hell, no one even need know you’re doing ‘aerobics’ or going on a diet: as far as anyone is concerned, you’re just taking a walk. You can literally walk away from death if you just get off the strata-lounger, exchange that cheeseburger with Mayo on Wonder bread for a lean steak and a salad and then go outside and take a walk!
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