You’re a bodybuilder.
Yeah, I get it. You don’t compete in bodybuilding competitions or a have a drawer full of posing trunks and 16th place ribbons.
But you exercise primarily to look better. So you, my friend, are a bodybuilder. And the sooner you get your head out of your ass and embrace it, the better your physique will be.
Although it has four syllables, you’d think it was a four-letter word.
Instead they’re “strength trainers” or “lifters” or even worse, “fitness enthusiasts,” which is industry speak for “dabbles in multiple activities just enough to feel their uninformed opinions should be heard.”
Even some actual card-carrying bodybuilders resist the bodybuilder label.
“I’m a physique competitor,” they say. Fair enough. While you may step on stage in baggy shorts and carrying a surfboard, the whole process leading up to your contest is basically the same. And yes, I do appreciate that you also get scored on skin tone.
So why the bodybuilder hate?
For one, the title comes with too much baggage, invoking stereotypes of overly tanned simpletons in spandex “picking things up and putting them down.”
There’s also the association with steroids and other PED’s – as opposed to all those ‘natural’ powerlifters, football players, even Crossfitters just saying their prayers and taking their vitamins.
Finally, like it or not, it’s a fringe sport that throughout history has always attracted a certain “type” of fan. I’ll just leave it at that.
So other athletes – even powerlifters, the bodybuilder’s first cousin – have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from the sport, dismissing it as “vain” or “silly” and of course, “non functional.”
That’s all fine and good. But what if getting bigger, stronger, leaner – i.e., looking good naked – is your goal? Suddenly, bodybuilding – not the competitive sport, but the practice — becomes highly functional.
Strength training is a great base.
Even if your goal is to become Mr. Olympia, a good strength training program will get a doe-eyed newbie bigger much faster than any “beginner bodybuilding program,” especially the lousy ones I came up on back when Jimmy Carter carried his own golf clubs.
But after a few years, if your goal is to maximize the aesthetic potential of your physique, you’ll need to break away from the well-chartered world of strength training programming and start navigating the murkier waters of bodybuilding.
That requires more than just changing routines or even changing gyms. It requires forgetting some of the “rules” you learn from listening to the gurus of strength training.
1. The Pump Matters.
The pump, or transient hypertrophy, occurs when more blood is coming into the muscle than is leaving, making the muscle swell up.
A lot of things affect the pump, such as diet, supplementation, hydration, and certainly anabolics, but one thing is for certain — bodybuilders love the pump. “The pump means growth,” said Arnold, and who are we to argue with the Oak?
However, many on the strength side say the pump is just a meaningless result of the resistance training process. Some go so far as to say it’s a sign that volume is too high.
Here’s what I do know, from my bestselling series Bryan’s Book of Utterly Useless Information and Movie Quotes:
You do not need to achieve a skin stretching pump to get stronger. But when training for size, a pump is good way to determine that you’re actually “connecting” with the muscles you’re trying to stimulate.
So a pump may not always equal growth, but zero pump very often correlates to an aesthetic weak point.
For example, many guys have never experienced a tight, painful chest pump. These same guys typically have very strong shoulders and triceps that “take over” during chest pressing exercises, resulting in sub-par chest development.
What to do: When training for size, always make a point of trying to achieve a pump in the target muscles. If your favorite exercises aren’t succeeding, it’s time to change your approach.
2. Tension Matters.
You say you deadlift every single day and people commend you on your hardcore work ethic. You say you count your tempo and people try to have you committed.
For that reason I was pleased to see an interesting article by Greg Mikolap in the October/November (is it really still Halloween?) edition of Alan Aragon’s much ballyhooed Research Review.
I was pleased not only because it aligned my pre-existing beliefs — boy I love it when that happens – but also because it might cause people to take a closer look at how fast they perform an exercise, and why.
According to Mikolap, the rep speed is simple when training for strength – controlled eccentric (lowering) and explosive eccentric (lifting). But that’s strength training, which primarily targets just the type 2 muscle fibers.
Since hypertrophy can occur through all three types of muscle fibers, to build maximum size you need to go beyond standard strength training parameters. That means varied loads and tempos, specifically slower eccentric tempos, up to 4 seconds per rep and at least 40 seconds per set.
What to do: Getting strong is all about increasing the load. Getting bigger is about increasing the tension. In my experience, many guys simply don’t spend enough time under tension (TUT) to reach their true growth potential.
However, you don’t have resign yourself to light weights and glacial tempos – things like drop sets and rest-pause sets are ways to combine heavier weights with a longer TUT.
Start with a weight you can only get 2-4 reps with then drop the weight once you get tired to lengthen the TUT.
As some motor units drop off after the first set, other fatigue-resistant motor units are still able to work. Lowering the weight and continuing forces these fresh motor units to step up, creating a bigger effect on the muscle.
3. Choice Matters.
I love reading Q’n’A columns from top powerlifters. You always get exchanges like this:
165-pound kid: “What should I do for my biceps?”
165-pound kid: “What kind of curls, barbell or dumbbell?”
Powerlifter: “It doesn’t matter. Eat something.”
He’s right of course. For a powerlifter that kind of question is majoring in the minors. However, if your goal is to reach your aesthetic potential, eventually those type of decisions become relevant.
Even with comparatively “small” movements, strength trainers tend to favor the ones they’re comparatively strong in (or enjoy doing).
So biceps work for example would be barbell curls or hammer curls. The problem is, both these movements favor the mid-range of the biceps strength curve, which over time can result in sub-optimal size development.
A more complete approach would have you consider the position of the elbow in relation to the torso. So either barbell or hammer curls for the mid-range of the strength curve mixed with Scott or preacher curls for the first portion and incline curls or concentration curls for the upper range.
What to do: Expand your exercise menu. You don’t need to include 37 exercises for each bodypart – and certainly not every workout – but having a diverse arsenal of movements can help ensure complete development, not to mention prevent overuse injuries.
4. Volume Matters.
Strength training is built around progressive overload, or increasing the amount of weight on the bar. It’s also the backbone of making a muscle bigger, which is why size and strength are so closely correlated.
However, as hypertrophy expert Brad Schoenfeld says, there’s a clear dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy (as well as strength). So volume is another powerful tool in a muscle building plan. Focusing just on load and neglecting to increase quality volume will bring most people to a growth plateau relatively quickly.
What to do: Of course you can’t keep adding volume ad infinitum, but neglect this variable and reach a size plateau that much faster. A useful technique is to focus on getting stronger but also cycle in increases in volume, especially for areas that are aesthetic weak points.
5. Technique Matters.
Strength training is highly technique dependant. My colleague Dave Tate says technique is the most important factor in the powerlifting and strength building process.
It’s also the area where lifters can experience the most dramatic improvements. Spend half an hour with a very smart powerlifting coach and your bench press might increase by 20 pounds or more. Obviously you didn’t get any bigger or stronger in those 30 minutes — what improved was your technique.
At a certain point, however, you must realize that there’s optimal technique for strength and optimal technique for size.
A great example is the bench press. As my colleague Menno Henselmans pointed out here, the powerlifting practice of tucking the elbows and arching the back will allow you to lift considerably more weight, but does not recruit the pecs nearly as well as flaring the elbows out to the side.
Granted, the “flared” variation isn’t nearly as “safe,” especially with heavy loads, but bodybuilders also have the option of reducing the weight and slowing down the tempo, not to mention simply switching to dumbbells, and still elicit a positive training effect, safely.
What to do: Different goals require different approaches. Understand the correct technique for your goals and train accordingly.
I still make fun of bodybuilders. Partly because I am one.
But I’m also quick to give credit where it’s due. For all their faults, bodybuilders know who to build muscle.
To not try to learn from them would be a mistake. Not as big a mistake as that time you were bored at work and decided to Google search “Gary Oldman” but forgot the “r” – but a mistake all the same.