Thursday, 30 April 2009

The bodybuilding myth

I want to clear up something once and for all. In this article, I'm going to discuss the difference between looking strong and being strong. Right now you might think there is no difference- the purpose of this article is to show you that in some case there is.

First of all , take a look at the video below. Skip to about 5:46 and just watch for a minute. I think its fairly amusing anyway.

As I'm sure you've noticed, this bloke is big. Admittedly not as big as some, but it's obvious that he 'pumps iron'. The bodybuilder, Markus, says that he's been training since he was 13 and that he's 29 now (sourced from his website). According to him, he's been bodybuilding for 16 years. So, naturally, I'm sure most of you would assume that he's pretty strong.

Unfortunately, this video demonstrates that he's not. The late Mike Mentzer, the coach, says that the plates are 45 pounds, so with 6 plates he's deadlifting about 270 pounds (120kg). He does a set of two as a warm-up, does three more decent lifts, and then two more bad lifts (he doesn't manage to 'lock the weight out').

Please don't think I'm bragging by saying this (serious strength trainers will say I'm weedy!), but I can just about lift what he's lifting with a bodyweight of 76kg and a whopping total of one month practising the deadlift. Anyone who knows me will know I haven't quite got his physique :-D.

I'm telling you this for one reason: to demonstrate the most under-appreciated fact in fitness training-

Bodybuilding isn't Strength training

In another video, Mike Mentzer says it himself: 'you are a bodybuilder not a weight trainer. We are not training for strength, we are training for body growth'. In other words, bodybuilders train to look strong and not to be strong.

As you've surely realised, this is a very important difference. As sportsmen, we are not interested in looking good. As human beings we might be, but as cricketers it makes no sense to specifically train your body for size.

Remember, bodybuilders train for competitions, were they are judged on their size and proportions. Over the years, bodybuilders have found the most efficient ways to get bigger. They are not judged on strength, and as such being strong has no use for them.

Science can even explain this difference. Most bodybuilders train to failure (that is, they perform a certain movement until they fail to do so) with medium weights. This type of training induces sarcoplasmic muscle growth, and is characterised by an increase in the water retention of the cytoplasm of the muscles. Consequently, the size of the muscle increases due to greater water content without an associated increase in strength.

I wasn't aware of this difference until a few months ago. The reason why this difference is so poorly documented is mainly due to the places we look for this information. Men's health magazine, for example, has no use for strength training. They need cover models who look good. They don't care if he can squat 500lbs, and neither do you. We just want to look like him. So they tell you to train like a bodybuilder. There's not much of a problem with this in my eyes.

The problem comes when coaches try to incorporate bodybuilding routines into their sports programs. This is disastrous, as players end up big but not strong. Their gains in muscle size are not adding anything to their performance.

To bring home my point, here's another video of a personal hero, Ross Enamait. This bloke is a beast.

As the Americans would say, 'do the math': Ross is lifting over three times his bodyweight!! To me, that's much more impressive that looking like the hulk. Notice as well, he's by no means a big guy! Clearly, he has felt no need to bulk up to become insanely strong.

To conclude, in my opinion I think the bodybuilding myth will continue for a long time. Louis Simmons, a notable powerlifter predicted that bodybuilding would be the death of strength training- unfortunately he was right.

Strength training is an absolutely crucial part to all sports- its such a shame it's done incorrectly so frequently. The cult of bodybuilding is to blame for the inappropriate training methods that I see performed by the rugby players at my university gym. It is the cause of our addiction to style over substance. It's also part of the cause of our society's obsession with image. As a sportsman, you are wasting your time if you follow a bodybuilders routine.

If you want to get strong (and put on some muscle as well) then this is what I would recommend:

- If you're new to strength training, start off doing 1-2 training sessions per week with 2 days rest inbetween. Just ensure that weight training doesn't hinder your sport specific training sessions.

-Do 6-7 compound exercises (look this up if you don't know what this is). In my opinion, there is no place for isolation exercises in sports training.

- Do 6-7 reps in each set at a weight of about 50% of your 1 rep maximum (1RM). Move the weight as fast as you can, but with extremely strict technique. This is the most important part from sportsmen. You don't play sport slowly, so dint lift weights slowly (there is a more scientific reason for this).

- Do 3-4 sets.

- Train in a circuit (i.e. do one set of one exercise, then move onto the next exercise).

- The next session, move up to 60% of your 1RM (don't' recalculate this, just use the same number from the week before). The session after that, use 70% of your 1RM. The week after should be a back-off week, where you use lower weights (50% 1RM) but focus solely on a very quick execution. This session will improve your power. The next session, move up to 60% and so on.

However, please note that there is no one-size-fits-all training method. If there was we would all do it! What has worked for me may not work for you. The most important thing is to get stronger. If you're not getting stronger, experiment with this sort of structure and find out what works for you.

For more info, see future posts or email me at You may be interested in 'Westside for skinny bastards',

If anyone tries this, I'd be interested to hear about your results after 10 weeks.

Train hard and have fun!



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