By Andre Newcomb
John Parrillo is a repository of bodybuilding knowledge. He is a flesh-and-blood Google when it comes to training, nutrition or supplementation. Parrillo is a wellspring of pertinent information; he has an inert ability to size up a bodybuilder and provide them immediately with applicable information and strategies that enables the trainee to overcome whatever plateau they are confronted with. At our prompting, John wrote his classic 50 Workout Secrets book in 1991. He cut it off at fifty secrets; he could easily have made it John Parrillo’s 100 Workout Secrets or 200 Workout Secrets. He has literally forgotten more than most bodybuilder experts ever knew. Much of John’s expertise and approach was gleaned from preparing hundreds of bodybuilders for competition. In the bodybuilder prep world, you either get significant results for your bodybuilder within the time allotted or you do not. For decades John Parrillo ran a giant lab experiment testing his expertise prepping the best bodybuilders in the world. Just as racecar technology filters down to passenger cars, the bodybuilder preparation tactics John learned and used form the backbone of the Parrillo philosophy of weight training, cardio, nutrition and supplementation. Here are some extremely effective, result-producing bodybuilding tricks of the trade that have been accumulated over the years, many you may not have heard about.
• Train your muscles to burn more fat: it has long been a Parrillo contention that repeated, protracted and frequent high intensity aerobic activity, over time, converts fast-twitch muscle fiber into a different muscle fiber type, a hybrid called fast twitch oxidative-glycolytic. The hybrid muscle fibers are created in response to cardiovascular stress and obtaining hybrid muscle fiber is beneficial on a multitude of levels. The fast twitch oxidative fiber can burn both glycogen and fat. Nominally, fast twitch fibers use glycogen as fuel; slow twitch fibers burn fat for fuel. Fast twitch oxidative burns glycogen and fat. High intensity cardio builds mitochondrial density within a working muscle. More of these cellular blast furnaces mean better and faster fat oxidation.
• Trigger growth hormone release via intense exercise: there is a lot of talk about the benefits of growth hormone. Humans manufacture GH naturally and when the body releases GH into the bloodstream, wondrous things happen. The human body is stingier with GH than any other hormone. One way to trigger GH secretion is high repetition progressive resistance training with moderate poundage, 20 to 100-rep sets. Parrillo will most often recommend a body part be “finished” with a 20-100 rep set complete with forced reps or drop sets. This sustained intensity literally shocks the body into secreting GH as a defense mechanism.
• Stretching is critical and has multiple benefits: those bodybuilders on the cutting-edge know and use John Parrillo’s fascia stretching as an integral part of their progressive resistance training. Regular, intense and targeted stretching loosens muscle fascia (the sheath beneath the skin) making muscle expansion far easier. Intense fascia stretching improves flexibility to a degree that polite toe-touch stretches cannot. A supple, pliable physique has a greater range of motion which makes a bodybuilder far less likely to rip or tear muscles. Tight inflexible muscles trap toxins and waste products while fascia stretching squeezes toxins and waste products out of trained muscles. The Parrillo protocol is to pump a targeted muscle, stretch the pumped muscle and finally, repeatedly flex the target muscle. John’s protocol is simple, “As the stretch begins, the body part being stretched is guided into position and stretched past the point of pain – and held for 10-seconds. Relax and exhale as you sink into a stretch. Do not hold your breath.”
• The optimal rest-interval: is their such a thing as a Parrillo weight training core workout template? Here is John thoughts on a good, standardized workout. “I would commence training a body part with a compound multi-joint big exercise. Start with an Intensity Set. Hit a high rep set, say 12-reps with light poundage and a purposefully slowed (not too slow!) rep speed. This highly concentrated effort is followed by 3-5 pyramid sets, on each succeeding set increasing the poundage while lowering the reps, down to an all-out 3-5 rep set. Conclude with 1-2 high rep exhaustion sets.” How much time should the bodybuilder allow between sets? “Between the heavy pyramid sets I advise the bodybuilder take a 2-5-minute rest between maximum efforts. I would use a purposefully shortened rest-interval between high-rep intensity sets. Keep in mind that every fascia stretch takes 10-15 seconds and does repeated flexing, both of which extend the length of time between sets.”
• Hamstring 911: John Parrillo has always been a master of muscle targeting. He is famous for being able to isolate any of the four quadricep muscle by skillfully repositioning the bodybuilder’s feet on different points on a leg press. John can zero in on the upper or lower pec, any of the three delt heads or the upper or lower lat. Hamstrings are critically important and chronically neglected. The Parrillo hamstring approach hits the hams from three unique angles. John takes the lying leg curl to the next level with a few subtle performance tips. “Drive the hips into the bench when pulling – then lift your knees off the pad at the top of the rep stroke.” John uses the bent-knee stiff leg deadlift to target the hams at the glute ham tie-in. The prone hyper-extension is used as a finishing exercise and is done one set to failure. These three exercises, each done with the unique Parrillo twist, are guaranteed, over time and with diligent application, to turn weak hamstrings into a strong point.
• Exhaustion sets for maximum muscle stimulation: most beginner bodybuilders lose out on a tremendous avenue of progress by avoiding high rep exhaustion sets. The hard work is done, the beginner bodybuilder has worked the body part. Now, instead of moving onto the next body part, the beginner, intent on becoming an intermediate level bodybuilder needs to take it one step further: before quitting a body part subject it to one or two Parrillo exhaustion sets. Parrillo prefers moderate poundage for high reps. “At the end of and exhaustion set, the ATP is exhausted. When ATP runs out, the muscle ‘locks up’ and cannot relax properly. Called Ischemic Rigor, when muscle fibers cannot relax during a negative rep, the fibers are torn. This creates unbearable discomfort.” Champion bodybuilders fight through this pain and experience muscle size gains. This is one reason why beginner bodybuilders never become intermediate bodybuilders.
• Use aerobics as a plateau buster: cardio is critical. Aerobic exercise forces oxygen through the body and this, done repeatedly, increasing the number and size of your blood vessels. Blood vessels are the supply routes that transport oxygen and nutrients to the muscles and remove waste products and toxins from the muscles. This expansion of the circulatory system is called improving cardiovascular density. The ability to build additional muscle is limited by your cardiovascular density. If the body cannot construct additional supply routes muscle growth will be capped. The more blood vessels you have and the larger the blood vessels are, the more nutrients your muscle tissue can receive and the faster the healing and greater the growth. The Parrillo approach to obtaining cardiovascular density is to work just below the oxygen-debt threshold. Exercise to a degree that you are breathing hard. Labored breathing and sweat, lots of sweat are the identifying characteristics of the Parrillo approach to aerobic exercise.
• Fasted Cardio – still a great idea! John Parrillo devised ‘fasted cardio’ in the 1980s and it remains a classic feature of modern bodybuilding. Do your aerobics every morning before breakfast and before consuming any carbs: no fruit juices or carb-loaded energy drinks. Perform intense cardio for 45-60 minutes. Huff, puff and sweat. At that time, coming off the sleep fast (you haven’t eaten since the previous night) glycogen stores are at their lowest level. When glycogen (carbohydrate) stores are exhausted, the body, now deprived of it’s favored fuel, will commence burning its second favorite fuel: stored body fat. Fasted cardio forces the body to burn body fat. John had even subtler twists. “Deepen the depth of fast by not eating any starch carbs (fiber is fine) past 5 pm. The longer you deprive the body of starch at night, the less glycogen you have to burn through to start the next morning’s fasted cardio session.” This timeless tactic should be used on a regularly reoccurring basis. Fasted cardio has been standard operating procedure in the mainstream bodybuilding world for decades.
• Revisiting the leg extension: the leg extension done on a machine might be the most practiced leg exercise in the world. I didn’t say the best leg exercise; I said the most practiced. Every YMCA and commercial gym in the nation and the world always has a seated leg extension machine. Everyone loves the leg extension done while seated on a comfortable seat. This is a very comfortable and pleasant isolation movement, assuming you don’t go too heavy or too hard. Leg extensions are a fun leg exercise to do. Sub-maximal leg extensions are, of course, worthless. Without intense effort there is no hypertrophy. 99% of those that use the leg extension heave the weight upward to get it started and never lock out at the top. The poundage freefalls and the lifters get a little rebound in the bottom. Here is the Parrillo way, “There are two key points of execution: first, achieve a full and complete lockout on every rep. Lock the knees completely at the top, contract the thigh muscles hard and hold the contracted lockout for a full second. Lower with control, feel the negative. Secondly, at the lockout, try and lift your lower quads and knees off the bench: those promotes an even deeper contraction. Deep contractions create optimal hypertrophy.”
• How to flye like Arnold: the greatest pectorals in the history of bodybuilding belonged to Schwarzenegger. He credited the dumbbell flye for much of his otherworldly pec development. He used a very specific style that exactly mirrors the flye technique John Parrillo taught his trainees. “When performing dumbbell flyes, it is important to keep the shoulders pressed into the bench throughout.” Pull up the movie Pumping Iron for an Arnold flye tutorial. He is shown performing a perfect set of flat flyes. Note the key technical points. Use a light poundage and go for the stretch; too many bodybuilders turn flyes into some sort of quasi-bench press using giant bells. Use light weight, fling the arms wide. Feel the pecs stretch on the ribcage on every rep. On each rep seek to sink the bells deeper. The greater the stretch the greater the muscular inroad. On the concentric, the raising of the bells, do NOT explode them upward or jolt the bells to get them started. Use a controlled raising, a slightly slowed rep speed that makes raising the light bells maximally difficult. There are two types of pectoral exercises, the pushing exercise and what Arnold called, “the hugging exercises.” Flyes done right are the King of hugging exercises.