Build Rockel Hard Pecs
German engineering built the unstoppable Ronny Rockel, whose high-volume chest workout has built pecs of steel.
By Lara McGlashan-Volz, MFA, CPT
Back in the day, bodybuilders like Frank Zane and Arnold Schwarzenegger competed year-round, entering as many contests as possible to garner exposure and sponsorships; it was the only way to make a name for themselves in a new and growing sport. Today, however, media coverage is rampant and social media is 24/7, so many elite-level pros enter only 1–2 competitions a year, preserving their energy and muscle mass for the big kahunas, such as the Olympia and the Arnold Classic. But apparently Ronny Rockel didn’t get the memo. In fact, in 2011 he competed in seven pro contests, including the Olympia and the Arnold.
Seven. Seven competitions means never going off-diet and never getting the chance to wolf down a dozen pizzas. Seven means never taking a break from training and constantly having to stay in peak shape for an entire year. Seven means not much in the way of fun for 365 straight days, unless said idea means you’re chained to a treadmill or Stairmaster. But Ronny Rockel isn’t like most people — or even most bodybuilders for that matter: He’s a machine. Because not only did he compete in seven contests in 12 months, he placed top 10 in all of them, and top five in half.
“I believe you become simply better from year to year, like good wine,” says the German juggernaut casually when asked how he accomplished what he did in 2011. “I work hard on me, in order to always give my best. But now, after competing in more than 40 contests since 2002, it’s time to take a break.”
Hence, Ronny is in the midst of “enjoying” a yearlong vacation from competition, with his sights set on a distant winter contest late in 2012, which he hopes will qualify him for the 2013 Olympia. However, this vacation doesn’t mean he isn’t training, and training hard, because you just know that Ronny wouldn’t simply let go, not with all the success he’s built up in recent years.
Who Better to Judge You
Spring has sprung in Ulm, Germany, and though it’s still a little nippy at night the days are gentle and balmy.
It’s dusk as Ronny walks into Herzog’s Fitness, where he’s immediately greeted with a hug and a kiss from his girlfriend Daniela Herzog, sister-in-law to the gym’s owner. “Daniela last year helped me a lot with my posing and presentation,” says Ronny as he moves toward a bank of benches. “She’s a successful German bodybuilder and also an IFBB judge, so she knows what looks good. She always has the last view of me before I go onstage.”
Because he’s offseason and trying to build size, Ronny is currently using a no-nonsense straight-set routine — with maybe a drop set thrown in for fun here and there. Contest time is a different story, though, with FST-7, giant sets, supersets and extended drop sets adding a nauseating intensity that helps sculpt his famously detailed and striated physique.
If You’re So Inclined
Ronny loads some plates onto the barbell resting on the incline bench rack. “Sometimes I train with an amateur athlete on leg day, but mostly I prefer to train alone,” says Ronny, settling into the bench and taking an overhand grip well outside shoulder width on the bar. He unracks the weight and slowly lowers it toward his chest, lowering his elbows toward the floor and bringing the bar to a spot just above his nipple line. When it nearly touches his chest, he reverses the move and powerfully presses the bar back to the start. He does 12 total reps with his warm-up weight, then stands and loads more plates onto the barbell.
“Though most benches use a fixed bench, it’s important that the angle isn’t too steep,” says Ronny. “If it’s more vertical, it loads more of the shoulders, which takes away from the chest. I like it to be at 45 degrees but no steeper.”
Ronny sits back squarely against the bench, lifts his upper chest slightly and begins his working sets: deliberately lowering the weight, then powering it back up to the start, each repetition a mirror-replica of the last. He moves through three sets of 6–10 reps and finishes off with a grunt, racking the weights with a clang.
The Drop Zone
Ronny slides the plates off the incline barbell and places them on the barbell at a nearby flat bench for bench presses. Though he’s decidedly offseason, Ronny is still in ridiculous shape, and a swelling pump has begun in his chest that’s growing by the set.
He lays on the flat bench, placing his feet flat on the floor for stability, and he again takes a fairly wide grip on the barbell. He unracks the weight and balances it between his hands. Slowly, he lowers the bar toward his chest, elbows pointing down and out, until the bar nearly touches him at nipple level. He presses the bar forcefully, but not over explosively, back to full-arm extension, squeezing his chest hard at the top before going into the next rep. He stands after 10 reps and shakes out his arms.
“With the bench press it’s important not to go too fast, or else you could tear your pec,” he warns and for good reason: many a pro has been sidelined with a torn pec considering the mega poundages they lift. After a brief water break, he adds more weight and does another set of seven. Then he strips a few pounds off of each side, summons a few friends nearby, who station themselves on either side of the barbell. “Time for a drop set,” says Ronny, then assumes his position underneath the barbell. He lifts the weight off the rack and does six repetitions, then briefly re-racks it so that his buddies can each remove a plate, then he lifts it right back up and does another six reps — not so quickly this time — then repeats that process once more, forcing himself to finish a final six repetitions with pecs flushed and cramping.
He stands and acknowledges his spotters, and they exchange a few jokes in German before taking their leave.
On the Fly
Ronny makes his way to the pec-deck machine and adjusts the seat. “It’s important, the position of your arms with this exercise,” he says, positioning the seat a little higher. “I execute this exercise with my elbows up, like ‘flyings,’ we say in German. Your elbows are at the same height as your shoulders and your wrists — all in the same horizontal plane.”
He sits erect in the machine and grasps the handles, lifting his elbows so that they’re level with his shoulders and wrists, parallel to the ground. Then he begins the exercise, pulling the handles inward toward the midline of his body. When his knuckles nearly touch, he squeezes his chest hard, then slowly opens the handles back out to the sides, getting a good stretch through his pecs. He completes 12 repetitions, then releases the handles and stands for a water break. “It’s also important to sit up tall and lift your chest,” he says. “If you’re rounding forward, your shoulders do too much work.”
He does two more fairly heavy sets of eight and six reps of flyings, then moves to the Hammer-Strength machine decline press.
“You know, since I rarely train with a partner I rely more on drop sets,” says Ronny as he loads plates onto the machine arms. “I normally do a drop set only once a workout to push toward failure. If you do more than that, you risk fatiguing the muscle with light weights, which won’t go very far toward building muscle. So I limit it to just one drop set per workout. This time I did the drop set on the bench press; next time I might do it on the incline bench or the decline. I purposefully like to change things up.”
Ronny adjusts the seat and gets into the machine, grasping the handles firmly and placing his feet flat on the floor for stability. In a strong motion he presses the handles away from his body until his arms are fully extended and the fibers in his lower chest are completely contracted. Slowly he returns almost to the start — making sure the muscles have to work through the eccentric contraction — then goes immediately in to the next rep. After an even 12, his pecs heavily cramping, he finally lets go of the handles.
“With decline you don’t need to use a lot of weight to get a good contraction,” says Ronny. “Use your mind-muscle connection to increase the intensity instead.” Ronny returns to the machine and uses the power of his noggin to push through one more set of 10 intense repetitions. Then he moves to the cables.
On the Cross
To hit his lower pecs with a single-joint move, Ronny adds cable crossovers as he nears the end of his workout. After setting the pins on either side of the machine he grips a handle from each upper pulley in each hand. He takes a step forward to create tension in the cables, but remains standing relatively upright. He admonishes not to bend over too far as this moves the emphasis to the middle pecs, making the move too similar to the pec deck.
He opens his arms wide, elbows slightly bent, and allows the cables to stretch his pecs. Then he pulls the handles inward toward each other, crossing his right hand over his left in front of his abdomen to maximize the lower pec contraction. A brief pause squeezing his pecs, he then slowly opens his arms back to the start, feeling a deep stretch. As he goes into his next rep, this time he crosses his left hand over his right. Three sets of 10–12 deliberate contractions, and his arms are shaking visibly from the fatigue that’s settled into his chest.
Dip + Rip
With the muscle fibers quivering, it would seem that Ronny’s pecs are toast, but he’s got one more kick to deliver before he’s done: three sets of weighted dips on the parallel bars. “Correct execution is more important than going ballistic,” he offers, like the middle-distance sprinter ready for one last kick. “I’ll use only a moderate weight here because I’m at a higher risk for injury.”
He wraps the belt around his waist and secures a plate between his legs. He steps into the bars and places his hands firmly on the siderails, then straightens his arms and steps off the footrail so that he’s hanging freely between the bars. He crosses his feet behind him and leans slightly forward to reduce the emphasis off his triceps. He bends his elbows and lowers himself between the bars, descending until his elbows make 90-degree angles. Then he smoothly presses himself back to the start, fully extending his arms without locking out. He does three sets of 10–15 reps, moving quickly through his sets, which aids in building a ridiculous, skin-splitting pump. He hops off the machine, unhooks the plate from his waist and slices his arms in the air: “Ich bin fertig.” I am finished.
Though he’s done a fairly high-volume workout — six exercises and 18 total working sets — the session took only one hour. His quick pace between sets allows him to maintain his conditioning while also pushing his pecs to their limits. “Offseason I still do cardio, though,” he admits, mixing himself a shake of four parts protein and one part BCAAs. “I do 20–30 minutes three times a week when I first wake up on my Precor machine at home. Contest time, I increase that to one hour every day.”
As he sips his shake and wipes his brow, he contemplates a year without competition: a lot of eating, a lot of heavy lifting but also a lot of resting. Should do him a lot of good both mentally and physically.
“I want to recharge my power so that I can compete strong in 2013,” he says. “I want to be a top bodybuilder and one day maybe Mr. Olympia, even. But I also want to be healthy — a good reason for the time off — and want to be able to look back in 10 years and still be in good health and successful. Because really, my only competition is myself, if I’m not at my best. Well, maybe Phil Heath, too!”