Dialed In! Masters Bodybuilder Rick Ryan Talks To Muscle & Strength

Editor’s note: Rick Ryan recently won his NGA Masters Bodybuilding Pro Card.

What were the major milestones that gave you that “extra” motivation boost?

Going to the largest show in California and placing in the top 5 pushed me to seek better training support, as did my competition in the largest show in the country and getting into the top 5.  Then I competed in the NPC Masters Nationals and really worked hard to get into the 4% BF range.  Though I was not competitive in an untested show, I learned that my conditioning could improve without losing so much muscle.  It was a turning point for me.

Another milestone was to have an off season where I did not go up to 210lbs.  By controlling my diet year round, and keeping my BF% lower, I felt better, and was able to gain a few pounds of muscle.  By keeping a journal of my lean mass, my workouts and nutrition, I was able to track my progress. When I saw that at a certain point I simply add fat, I stopped adding to my diet. And when I saw my breaking point on how heavy I could lift, I changed up my routine.

I can do 475 lb rack pulls with my back, 1400 lb leg presses, and 410 in chest presses. But I will never go below 6-8 reps since that is just an ego looking for an injury.  There is no such thing as “eat whatever you want”, there is only an occasional cheat meal. LOL.

Rick Ryan

What does your current training and split look like, and what do you like most about it?

I have tried many splits, and do like the “Frank Zane” type 3 day cycle where you do chest and triceps one day, legs the next, and back and biceps the next.  However, at my age, I find that I need more recovery and like to work more angles on one or two muscle groups at a time – so I now do a 4 day split spread over a week.  I think it is important to be careful to get enough rest for recovery and never work a sore muscle.

I also like to spread out much of my upper body workouts so as to save my shoulders from injury. When you think about it – most of your exercises require use of your shoulders wrists and elbows – hurt a weak link, and you can be out of the gym for a while. I change up the sequence and muscle groups in various ways so I will list for you my favorites:

  • Rick RyanMonday: Abs, Arms, Shoulders
  • Tuesday: Legs – (Includes calves) – gives upper body a rest
  • Wednesday: Off (Remember off means LISS in the morning and HIIT in the evening)
  • Thursday: Chest and Abs
  • Friday: Back and Traps
  • Saturday: Off (Gives me more time with my wife and to relax and recover)
  • Sunday: Off

How often do you perform cardio?

I think cardio is extremely important for endurance and heart health.  I also vary the amount of cardio to aid in managing the amount of fat (body fat %) I carry.   Hence, it is less important to perform cardio in the off season, when I am pushing to grow muscle and go up to about 8.5% body fat.  I find that if I lose sight of my abs, pushing over 3000 calories a day just adds more fat without muscle gains.

Off season I generally perform 30 minutes of low intensity steady state  (before breakfast) to get my heart rate up in the 120s.  When I am getting ready for a competition, I take 20-26 weeks to slowly burn off the fat.  This requires adjusting the macronutrients to manipulate carbs and total calories.  I gradually increase the duration of LISS to an hr, and then increase intensity some to keep burning more calories as my conditioning improves.

For example, I will start with an incline of 10 degrees going 3 mph and as I get close to competition I will be at 15 degrees and 3.5 mph.  You can tell when you are ready to increase intensity, as the resting heart rate drops and your ability to get through cardio becomes easy.

On my days off from weight training, I also use high intensity interval training.  Usually building up from 10 to 20 sprints of 15 sec on and 45 seconds off. The HIIT training is much shorter – about 20-25 minutes. It is more intense, and though wt loss is about the same, this technique tends to help you retain muscle more effectively that LISS.  The closer I get to the competition, the more intense these workouts become.

For the last 6 weeks, I go to a high school track and run 100 yard dashes and walk the turns so each mile has two sprints.  I will also mix that up with running the bleachers – which is great for leg definition.  After the show, I go back the 30 min LISS in the morning.  I believe cardio has benefits for everyone.  It is more about monitoring your heart rate than how fast you are going. So focus on getting your heart rate in the 60-70% range for weight management.

Rick Ryan

How important is progression of weight in some form, in the muscle building process?

It is not that important.  Often people will ask me how much I can bench press.  Well it is only 225lbs for 6 or 8 reps.  Buy I can use the hammer strength machine and perform 6-8 reps with 410lbs.  It has to do with the mechanics of your bone structure.  I have wide shoulders, and find that a barbell bench press places to much stress on my shoulders rather than my pectoral muscles.

Overall, the question really is related to what techniques are important to muscle building.  To a certain degree this question touches on muscle confusion.  In other words, you really should train in a way it is important to change up your routine (order of exercises, what day you work what muscle groups, etc.)  Here is my recommended priority of building muscle.

First, learn form.  Learning form is very important to avoid injury and to form the mind muscle connection.  That is to say – as you perform each exercise, feel the muscles working that you intend to work.  A trainer can be very helpful in showing you which exercises work for you and how to perform them.  The second priority is to apply a large variety of intensity techniques.  I will explain that in detail in a moment.

Rick RyanAnd lastly, weight – yes progression of weight is important.  However, it should not compromise your form or intensity.  The body knows when you are hitting a muscle properly, but it does not care as much how much weight is being moved.  What is more important is the time under tension.  So when you see someone in the gym swinging a 130 lb barbell for curls with poor form for 3 reps – you should not be impressed with their 3 rep maximum weight.  Chances are they will get a sore back from poor form, and may be doing partial reps (dropping the wt quickly or resting it at the top), with nearly zero time under tension.

What you want to do is use a variety of techniques to hit the muscle you are targeting, often with a full range of motion.  I believe in slow motions – 2 seconds for the positive (pulling or pressing the weight), and a slower 3-5 second negative (controlled movement back to the starting position). There are many techniques you can use for intensity, but the most critical aspect of good form is to get a good stretch and/or good contraction (squeeze) of the muscle.

Some techniques I use include a slow movement, static hold on the last rep for 5-10 seconds, supersetting (alternating two opposed muscle groups with little to no rest between sets), giant sets (moving from one exercise to the next to the next – for example, calf raises where you do a set of seated raises, a set of standing raises and a set of donkey raises, then repeat all three exercises 2 or 3 more times).

Partials – for example, at the end of a chest workout, I will do light high reps sets with 10 partials followed by 10 full reps – to get a pump and a burn.  The are referred to as burnouts as well because of the high reps.  And remember – before you start and after you finish your routine, always get a good stretch.

What are some of the most common mistakes made when someone is trying to build muscle and/or get ripped?

I think the main problem is the “more is better” approach as opposed to learning to listen to your body and tune your approach.  I made the mistake when I first started working out to try and increase the weight each week – with in a few weeks I was doing 100lbs dumbbell presses, and injured a rotator cuff muscle.

I also would work out in the gym for hours, which was too much for my body so I would end up losing muscle rather than gaining it.  So overtraining is another common mistake.

I also worked with some nutritionists that did not know how to work with natural bodybuilders.  I lost too much weight to fast and lost muscle in the process.  Dieting must be tuned as well – so that you burn fat while retaining as much muscle as possible. This is done by slowly decreasing calories, manipulating carbs, and continuing to work with heavy weights.

Rick Ryan

What are some of the biggest training mistakes you’ve made?

My biggest mistake was to stay with a trainer/nutritionist that do not really understand what they were doing.  Anyone can say they are a trainer and nutritionist, but if they can not explain what they are doing with you and why, then that is a clue that they are not qualified.  If you do not get results quickly, and they are not willing to tune your program and listen to you, to learn how you respond to adjustments, then cut them lose.

I trusted someone too long, and it just set me back.  I believe in learning from people and then improving as much as you can by learning what works for you.  Ultimately you will be the best off to learn all you can and then keep what works, and throw away what doesn’t.

If someone wants to connect with you, where can you be found?

Do you have any tips for someone who is looking to compete in your sport?

Given your self plenty of time to get ready – and get help from the pros.  I have had several nutritionists and finally found a great one that has been very effective and helped me learn more about my body, what works and what doesn’t.  Everyone has different sensitivities to various foods, and combinations of protein, carbs and fat.  So forcing a canned formula on anyone is a big mistake.

If you just want to get in good shape, then you may not want to compete – the top competitors get very lean.  This is very challenging.  So unless you have been working out for a year or two, I would say that you should focus more on consistent mass building.  Otherwise, hire a good nutritionist to guide you day by day to achieve your goals.

Rick Ryan

Toning up an getting on stage is challenging, so plan on a 6 month commitment to slowing get in the condition you need to be in for the stage.  It can be expensive, because you use more supplements to cut than you do off season.  You might want the assistance of a trainer with judging experience or a championship under their belt to critique your body so you can work on weak points.

Also, a posing coach is a good idea to use as well.  There are poses for the competition, and then there is a night show.  I have found the posing to be very challenging since you have to think about what position to be in and all the muscles to flex at the same time.  It takes lots of practice.

Overall, set some realistic goals.  If you want to lose weight and get in shape, do you really want to get on stage to show your family and friends what you achieved?  If so then great – do it.  I find that the natural shows have very supportive audiences.  But if you are out to win a competition, remember that you will never know who is going to show up and what the judge’s opinions are going to be.  Judgment is often an art, and if you relax at the wrong point, it could be enough to have you miss out on the top spot even if you feel that you have the best physique.

I have been in contests for over 7 years, and been in the top 5 at some of the largest shows in the country.  I can tell you that I enjoyed those shows the most when I came in to do my best, make friends and enjoy the experience.  When I only thought about who I had to beat and if I was going to win, it just compromised the experience for me and the people around me.   My best advice to you is to have fun, be in YOUR best shape, and enjoy the experience.

What attracts you to the natural side of sports and competition?

I think that the natural side of bodybuilding not only provides you with a relatively fair playing field for competition, but also is better for your health.  No drugs to are used, so you need to be more focused on health levels of training, nutrition, to get into shape – which helps you live a healthy and fit lifestyle.

Even though natural bodybuilding is an extreme sport, I believe there are many less risks to participating in a support without extreme drugs. There are many reasons why drugs are illegal.  And though I believe that HRT is a viable option for older people and those men that have extremely low testosterone levels, I do not advocate using artificial means to double triple or quadruple your hormone levels.

Favorite activities and hobbies you enjoy when away from the gym?

I enjoy playing the drums, writing books, and for many years I was a record producer and have raced cars on the track at high speeds.  I think that if I was not bodybuilding I would be racing cars in the ¼ mile.  I have been working on a project which will result in 3-4 booklets on bodybuilding/health/fitness and a DVD that goes with them.  Overall, I like to be creative and have side projects going on, though my job as an Executive project manager at IBM also is very fulfilling.

Rick Ryan

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