Fresh off a win at the North Americans, new IFBB pro Juan “Diesel” Norel trains his back hard and heavy with two weekly routines – one for width and one for thickness
New York City is bustling with quickstep energy, and on this particular Friday, that hustle and bustle is evident in the pedestrian traffic out front of Synergy Gym on 14th Street in Chelsea. Inside, the high-octane energy persists, though less frenetic and more focused, as new IFBB pro Juan Morel gears up for his back-training workout. Juan earned his pro card at the 2011 North Americans last September, and though he’s been competing since only 2007, his abrupt rise toward the top seems rote.
“You know, I train hard, I have good lines and I’m disciplined,” says the 29-year-old with the telltale accent that identifies him as a native New Yorker. “I always thought I had what it took to become a pro — good genetics coupled with determination. I set goals and believed I could achieve them. Then I did.” Another key factor to his success: Dave Palumbo. “When I was starting out I read a lot of magazines, and I always saw Dave’s name mentioned in there,” says Juan. “I called him for help with my first contest. He was impressed with me and said, ‘We’re going to make you a champion.’ From then on we’ve been a team.”
To get ready for his pro debut in 2012, Dave is changing Juan’s strategy a bit. “I believe in hardcore lifting, and my workouts up to now have been short, like 30-45 minutes,” explains Juan, cracking open a day-glo blue Powerade. “Now Dave has me trying some volume training, especially on lagging parts like triceps and, to some extent, my legs. So I’ll be spending more time in the gym doing more sets. The idea is to shock my body, beat it down a little more and force it to grow.”
Today, however, is back day, and even though back has never been a worrisome or lagging area for Juan, he still hits it hard and heavy. “I train back twice a week, and today is a thickness day,” he says. “We’ll do a lot of rows and such. My first back workout this week, on Tuesday, was a width workout, with a lot of wide-grip stuff, like pulldowns and pull-ups.”
DAWN OF THE DEADLIFT
Juan likes to begin his workout with barbell deadlifts, a good, old-fashioned mass builder from stem to stern. He assembles a barbell and does a quick 10 reps using 135 pounds, then does two more sets of 10 with 185 and 225, respectively. He drops the barbell to the floor, then shakes out his arms and grins.
“Today is gonna be a heavy day, I can feel it,” he shares, then adds weight to the barbell to total 495 pounds. He slips his wrist wraps on and methodically tightens them on the barbell using an overhand grip about hip-width apart. He drops his hips and looks at himself in the mirror. He presses his lips together and, with a flat back, straightens his legs, dragging the barbell up along his shins as he comes to a full standing position, exhaling at the top. He pauses briefly then slowly bends his knees and drops his hips, lowering until the plates of the barbell just touch the ground. Immediately he powers up explosively into another rep, exhaling forcefully as he stands. He completes eight reps in this manner and drops the barbell to the floor with a clang.
“The key to doing deadlifts properly is your focus,” says Juan, putting more weight on the bar so that it totals 585 pounds. “Pick a point on the ceiling and look at it the whole time. If you’re looking up, your chest will be lifted, your hips will drop and you’ll stand straight-er at the top. This eliminates the rounded back that a lot of guys get with this exercise that can lead to disk injuries in the lower-back area.”
He grasps the bar once more and demonstrates this technique, which indeed gives him perfect form for each of his five repetitions. He takes another sip of his Powerade drink, increases his weight to 675 pounds and does another three reps. His final set: a 765-pound barbell that hunkers heavy on the ground.
“I’m going for two reps but will probably get only one,” says Juan, eye-balling the weight, then suddenly squatting down and securing his wraps. After a brief staredown with himself in the mirror and a little Lamaze-style breathing, Juan stands, heaves the barbell from the floor and extends his legs powerfully. He returns the bar to the floor and shakes his head, unwrapping his straps and making a slashing motion with his hand. “One is all I’m gonna get today,” he says. “A one-hit wonder.”
Juan strips the bar he was just using and places it on the low pegs of a squat rack. Then he reloads it with 400 pounds’ worth of iron and shakes out his arms. “Bent-over rows are another
mass movement that build crazy thickness in the mid and upper back,” he says. “The key to these is the squeeze.” He takes a grip well outside shoulder width on the bar and lifts it off the rack, backing up to a clear space. With his arms hanging straight, he bends forward about 60 degrees from his hips, keeping his back flat and his shoulders back. He drives his elbows up and backward, pulling the barbell into his abdomen, holding briefly in the fully contracted position before slowly extending his arms and returning to the start. He never cheats the bar up by using momentum, though each contraction is explosive and strong. He re-racks the bar after eight reps and steps back.
“A lot of guys just jerk the weight, but they’d get much better results if they squeezed the muscles instead,” explains Juan. “Achieve full contraction, pause and hold, then release.”
Juan does three more sets of eight, focusing individually on each contraction. He increases the weight gradually, topping out at just short of 500 pounds by the fourth set. He then strips the
plates, snags the bar from the rack and moves to an open area in the gym where he lays the bar on the ground.
Juan walks over to the pulldown machine to grab a V-handle, and is waylaid by one of his personal-training clients. Since Juan works full time as a trainer here at Synergy, he’s often interrupted during his workouts. But he takes it in stride, chatting the client up a bit, asking about his wife and new baby, then thanking the guy for the compliments and accolades he delivers when he hears Juan got his pro card.
Juan returns with the handle and a smile. “Contest time, my clients know I’m all business,” he says, sliding four 45-pound plates onto one end of the barbell. “But right now, offseason, I can talk a little and not worry about it,” he says lightly.
Then he’s off again, this time to the weight rack where he snags a 100-pound dumbbell and returns, placing it off to the side next to a flat bench. He shakes out his arms, claps his hands. “Okay, so now I’m going to superset T-bar rows and one-arm dumbbell rows with this makeshift T-bar and this dumbbell,” he relays. He slides the V-handle underneath the barbell at the end where he just placed the plates, and says, “It helps keep the weight more stable if the other end of the barbell is wedged into a corner, like this.” He straddles the bar and grips the handle with both hands. He drops his hips, flattens his back, tightens his core and straightens his legs so that he’s in a position similar to that of a bent-over row. Holding here, using the V-handle he rows the end of the barbell up toward his chest, driving his elbows back and keeping his arms in close to his sides. Juan instructs that the close grip targets the lower lats better than the previous wide-grip moves. The plates rattle with each powerful pull and after eight reps, Juan bends his knees, drops his hips and places the barbell back on the floor.
Immediately he moves to the flat bench, grabs the dumbbell in his left hand, and then places his right hand and right knee on the bench. With a flat back, he rows the dumbbell up, keeping his elbow in close to his side and his shoulders square. He does eight reps on each side.
“This is a great superset for pumping, and getting tons of blood into the muscles,” says Juan. Looking at himself in the mirror, he does a back-double biceps, and tries to see himself over his shoulder. “How am I lookin’?” he asks. “I can’t see very well!” Even at his offseason weight of 270 pounds — he’s 240 contest — Juan is a living anatomy lesson. Thick muscle bellies pop in high relief as he flares his lats and curls his fists in toward his ears. Look out IFBB.
Laughing, Juan puts another plate on the end of the barbell and does eight reps apiece for each row. “I’m not trying to break any records with this superset,” he explains when asked why he doesn’t increase the dumbbell weight along with that of the T-bar. “The purpose of this superset is pumping. The mass building has already been done; now it’s time to fill the muscles with blood.” A final set of seven reps with six plates on the bar and one more set of seven with the dumbbell and this superset is super-done.
Juan carries the V-handle to the seated row machine and attaches it to the cable. “Yep, it’s another row,” he jokes. “Sometimes I’ll do pulldowns instead to change things up, but I’m going to do a bunch of those next back workout, so we’ll do one more row today.”
Juan puts the pin in at the bottom of the stack and grips the close-grip handle with both hands. With a flat back, he leans forward slightly from his hips, the weight pulling his arms to completely stretch his lats. He pulls the handle in toward his abdomen, driving his elbows
straight back and pausing briefly to squeeze at the top. He gets in 10 reps, then stands and shakes out his arms. He polishes off his Powerade, then does two more sets with 10 and eight reps, respectively. Part one of his training day is done; he’ll return later in the evening to tackle his shoulders.
Juan sits in the trainer’s area at the front of the gym and concocts a post-workout shake consisting of 80 grams each of protein and simple carbs. As he sips his shake he ponders the question just posed to him: So now that you’ve gotten your pro card, what’s your next goal?
“I want to be one of the better bodybuilders in the world,” he says. “I definitely see myself being onstage with Phil Heath, battling him — not necessarily beating him, but battling him. I also want to make an impression at my first pro contest, the New York Pro in May, and depending on who shows up to compete, break the top three. I have it in me; it’s just a matter of bringing it out at the right time.”
Speaking of time, Juan checks his watch, and then stands and shoulders his bag: It’s time to go home and eat a meal — white rice and chicken. Then he’ll be back in a few hours for round two.