Heavy Offseason Lifting with Joel Thomas
Following a top-five national finish, Florida NPC competitor Joel Thomas takes us through a chest and triceps mauling that shows everything’s heavier and harder in the offseason.
By Eric Velazquez, NSCA-CPT
Most professional athletes can’t wait for the R&R that looms in the offseason. Many go in search of the most distant, tranquil escapes possible in order to put the toil of their trade behind them. But the term “offseason” doesn’t really apply to hardcore bodybuilders. Forget about beachy retreats; in fact, between contests is when you’re most likely to find a bodybuilder tossing around freight-train-heavy amounts of iron in the gym. People often don’t realize it but the pain, strain and sweat of such primordial lifting is sometimes all the respite needed from the depleted, energy-sapped preparation for a contest.
And heavy is where rising NPC star Joel Thomas thrives. With a physique born out of the powerlifting circuit — all-over meaty and decidedly powerful — Joel craves this kind of offseason therapy. A fifth-place finisher in a stacked field at the 2010 NPC Nationals, Joel knows that each intense, big-weight gym session is putting him one step closer to his ultimate goal of becoming an IFBB pro. His resume may say “amateur” but his work ethic is anything but. Follow along as this Florida native blasts through a pound-laden, and at times unconventional, chest and triceps routine at Gold’s Gym Dr. Phillips in Orlando.
Joel is big, athletic and healthy. And he wants to keep it that way. To ensure that he’s ready for the Herculean-sized sets to follow, he starts his workout at the small-man side of the dumbbell rack with a set of 10-pound dumbbells.
“Some guys like to start out with a few minutes on the treadmill or bike, but I tend to start out and stand in front of the dumbbell rack for 10 minutes or so when training upper body,” he says. “I’ll do some light shoulder press and rotator-cuff work. I like to get some blood in my biceps and triceps for a general warm-up before getting into the specific warm-up.”
Chest Exercise 1: Incline Bench Press
- Two warm-up sets + 4 working sets (12, 7, 7, 2)
- Three-phase drop on final set
In world of flat-benchers gone crazy, Joel prefers to start his day on the incline, either with dumbbells or a barbell. “I think your first exercise is where you’re going to be the strongest because you’re not fatigued at all and I want my upper chest to be big and full,” he says. “For me, going heavy on flat bench is easy. So I like to get incline work done nice and early. Really, my upper chest used to be lacking. By putting this move first more often, I’ve got more muscle detail and maturity up there than I used to. I’ve seen an overall improvement in my upper chest.”
But before the big sets, Joel does two sets at 135 — he doesn’t count reps — taking each one through a full range of motion, the bar lightly touching his chest each time. “I just focus on the blood flow, coming down slow to stretch the muscle, then squeezing on the way up.”
A subsequent set of 225 — a working set for most mere mortals — also counts as a warm-up. On this day, MuscleMag athlete Andy Haman steps in to offer what turns out to be an unnecessary spot. “I usually do between 15 and 20 reps with 225. At this point, I’m not feeling any strain at all.”
Only now, with three warm-up sets in the queue, is Joel ready for his working sets, which he always takes to near failure. He squeezes out an easy 12 reps at 315, then slides another 45-pound plate on each end of the bar. Taking his place on the bench, Joel takes a pause, as if to get his head on for the work ahead.
“Usually, I’ll have headphones on and this set is when I’ll get pretty serious,” he says. “Some guys talk a lot, talk to the weight or whatever to pump themselves up. I tend to listen to some heavy music or slow down my breathing to prepare for the set.”
Seven reps later, it’s over. He repeats the set under careful supervision from Andy, then quickly ups the ante: five plates per side.
“Andy got me pretty pumped up and ready to go on that,” Joel says. “He’s a motivating dude.”
This is where Joel tops out on this move. After two labored but technically sound reps at 495, he and Andy drop the weight to 315. This signals the start of a three-phase drop set, with Joel working to failure at 315, 225 and 135. Normally, this type of intensity-booster is reserved for the end of a workout but he prefers to get it done right up front.
“You can go heavy and go to failure but you’re not going to get the pump, which is why I do the drop set,” he explains. “You’ll have better blood flow to the area. After that exercise, I don’t think it matters how heavy you go on your next exercise. Of course, I’ll still go as heavy as I can go. I like to go hardcore from the beginning instead of waiting until the second or third exercise.”
Chest Exercise 2: Flat-Bench Dumbbell Press
- 3 sets (10, 10, 8)
At last, the flat bench. But Joel opts for dumbbells instead of the straight bar.
“I think dumbbells have helped my chest grow more than anything,” he says. “When I was powerlifting, I didn’t have much of a chest at all. I think it’s more of a natural movement for your shoulders. I know a lot of guys that do a lot of flat barbell pressing and they have shoulder injuries. As soon as I started using dumbbells more often, it cleared up a lot of shoulder pain for me and it lets your chest do more of the work.”
Joel, who has pressed a set of 200-pounders on an incline, finds little challenge in the Gold’s rack. He grabs a set of 100s and knocks out 10 easy reps, conversing with the camera crew throughout.
“Most gyms don’t have dumbbells that are heavy enough,” he says. “When that’s the case, I’ll use bands with dumbbells most of the time, which helps me be more explosive.”
Next, he takes the 130s and performs perfunctory sets of 10 and eight. He reminds us that he’s maintained his pump from the incline work, so the stimulation from these weights is more than enough to break down the muscle.
Joel even jokes that the hardest part of the set was “deadlifting 260 pounds into place.”
Chest Exercise 3: Pec-Deck Flye
- 4 sets (15, 15, 15, 15)
The pace of the routine hasn’t slowed but as he takes his place at the pec-deck, it’s clear that it’s taking some time for Joel to dive back into each set.
“I take a few minutes between sets,” he says. “Sometimes I get picked on for training like a powerlifter. I’m not watching the clock. It’s not a powerlifter’s pace, but it’s definitely not fast. I tend to slow it down before a heavy, heavy set to get ready mentally, and it allows me to train heavier throughout.”
With another compound move yet to come, Joel’s waltz through these isolation sets seems out of place.
“I don’t necessarily do all my compound movements, then all my isolation moves afterward,” he says between sets of 15 reps. “This helps me keep my pump and it also allows my triceps to take a bit of a break so I can come back to pressing stuff even stronger.”
Knocking back some electrolytes before his fourth set, he dutifully moves over to another multijoint move, this one from a decline angle.
Chest Exercise 4: Hammer-Strength Decline Press
- 3 sets (12, 12, 12)
“I finish with these to make sure I hit each area of the chest,” he says. “I also like to do decline moves at the end because the elbow placement tends to stretch my pecs more than anything else. I like that deep stretch toward the end of my workout.”
With three plates on each side of the bar, Joel doesn’t count reps. Instead, he focuses on the stretch of each rep. Still, each set is done to about 12. His pecs swelled from north to south and east to west, Joel is only halfway through the day’s schedule. Triceps are next.
Triceps Exercise 1: V-Bar Pressdown
- 4 sets (15, 12, 12, 12)
His triceps already engorged with blood from his previous pressing work, Joel moves in for the final coup de grace. His first stop, however, isn’t the dip bars or the bench — it’s the pressdown station, where he attaches a V-bar to the cable.
“I don’t train triceps in a traditional way at all,” he says. “Very rarely will I do close-grip benches. For your triceps to grow, you have to really isolate the muscle belly. I feel like if you’re doing pressing movements or dips, your shoulders or chest can take over too much. That’s not really something I like to do.”
Joel will typically train triceps by themselves, with back or with biceps, but training them after his pec routine offers a more preservative effect. “For me, if I do triceps on chest day I don’t have to go so heavy because my triceps are already exhausted,” he says. “This tends to help my joints a little bit.”
The V-bar seems to be a slightly unconventional choice, but Joel explains: “I like the straight bar too, but this is more comfortable for my elbows and wrists. Going from pressing heavy, your wrists may be a bit tired so this may be a bit more comfortable.”
Joel’s rep range is somewhat high, as he does sets of 15, 12, 12 and 12, but he insists that sets of six or eight have no place in triceps training. “You need to get blood flowing into your triceps,” he says.
Triceps Exercise 2: Lying Dumbbell Roll-Up
- 3 sets (12, 12, 10)
- 3–4 negatives after failure on last set
“These aren’t lying dumbbell skullcrushers,” he points out quickly. “I call ’em roll-ups.”
Giving up on trying to explain how the movement differs from traditional skulls, he demonstrates. On each rep, he allows his elbows to travel back beyond perpendicular. Then, leading with his elbows, he forcefully extends the weight back up over his face.
“I’m not keeping my elbows in one place. It really just stretches the triceps a bit more before the extension. It gives you a longer muscle contraction.”
On the final set, Joel reaches failure at 10 reps. Rather than set the weights down, he lowers the weight back toward his shoulders for a count, then presses them back up and slowly lowers them through the negative portion of the rep. He repeats this for four total reps, recycling the dumbbells with a press since he’s no longer physically able to rely on just his triceps strength to handle the positive portion.
Triceps Exercise 3: Close-Grip Bench Press
- 4 sets (10, 10, 8, 8)
- 2–3 negatives after failure on last set
Though he’s not a fan of close-grip benches for triceps, he uses them to finish off his routine today.
“I like to do unweighted dips usually but this was a good way to finish today,” he says after four sets at 225, the last featuring three negatives with Andy’s help.
Because this is a multijoint move, Joel advises keeping your elbows close to your sides as you lower the weight — not out to your sides as you’d do regular benches for chest. And to fully engage your triceps, focus on the top half of the move, not the bottom. Press the bar to complete extension on each rep.
His last set in the books, Joel gathers himself and his belongings and prepares to head out the door. Though he’s trained shoulder-to-shoulder with a few pros before, having Andy Haman here today is a privilege not lost on this humble up-and-comer.
“He’s a trip,” he says with a laugh. “It’s really fun. It makes you kinda feel like you’re closer to your goal. It’s really motivating. Pros I’ve trained with have some good advice for me. Andy had a lot of positive stuff to say to me. He told me to be patient while I’m broke and to hang in there.”
Andy also remarked on Joel’s sinewy calves. “He seemed pretty impressed with my calves. Those were a gift from my parents.”
Thousands of pounds in the training bank, his MuscleMag tank top stretched and drenched, Joel bids the crew farewell and goes in search of some post-workout chow. Recovery is key because tomorrow — and the day after — he’ll be back at it again. Some offseason, huh?
Joel’s Offseason Chest and Triceps Routine
|Incline Bench Press||4||12, 7, 7, 2|
|Flat-Bench Dumbbell Press||3||10, 10, 8|
|Pec-Deck Flye||4||15, 15, 15, 15|
|Hammer-Strength Decline Press||3||12, 12, 12|
|V-Bar Pressdown||4||15, 12, 12, 12|
|Lying Dumbbell Roll-Up||3||12, 10, 10|
|Close-Grip Bench Press||4||10, 10, 8, 8|