by Greg Sushinsky
So now that you’re bodybuilding, what is it? What is it that you’re doing? Okay, so you’re training with weights now, where you weren’t before, and you’re hearing a lot about diet and nutrition. So what is that exactly that you’re doing and why?
People mean a lot of different things when they say the word, “bodybuilding.” For many, it means getting as big and strong as you can, and the muscle is secondary. These are strength and power men and women. Some of them are huge, or get huge, or try to, and they build a lot of muscle along with their strength and power, which is their first concern. Then there are people who don’t even like the term bodybuilding, who just like to work out a little bit to shape up, they aren’t interested in building a whole lot of muscle—they’re more like the casual trainers. Then there are fitness people, who work out, as the term suggests, to stay fit; then there are “abs people,” who want abs, and on and on. All of these people or groups do or don’t consider themselves bodybuilders, and often they don’t consider anybody else who does something that they don’t do a bodybuilder.
This doesn’t even address the fact that there are lifters, particularly powerlifters or strongmen (and women) who consider all bodybuilders—and anybody that doesn’t do what they do—sissified wimps, pencil necks unworthy of their respect or consideration.
What does all this mean? Not much, except it causes a lot of animosity and confusion when everybody gets thrown together uncomfortably in that group, “bodybuilders.” And this is not to even address the ongoing thirty or fifty years war, cold or otherwise, between bodybuilders who use drugs and those who don't.
While it would be nice if people got along and respected each other—“Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Hemingway once wrote—you can forget that for now and maybe forever. People love to fight, they love conflict over cooperation, and the fractious history of bodybuilding has proven that so: long on conflict and enmity, very short on cooperation.
So, where does that leave you when you pick up a weight, particularly for the first time? What are you getting into? Just a thought: bodybuilding can be yours, you can put your personal stamp on it. You can do it for your own reasons—whether you want to compete or be strong or add it to a sport or whatever reason you can dream up. And you don’t have to accept what somebody else insists is the way you should do it or think about. There’s a freedom there. Nobody owns bodybuilding, nobody has a monopoly on the idea. Bodybuilding belongs to those who do it, who claim it.
If you want to do bodyweight calisthenics, and you consider it bodybuilding, fine. If you lift weights to get “toned” and build a little muscle, but are turned off by the pro bodybuilders’ physiques and don’t consider yourself a bodybuilder, that would seem your right as well. If you want to build muscle and compete, and choose not to take drugs, that's a choice as well, and that’s what this activity is all about, choice. The idea that some federation or magazine or supplement company or gym or trainer or website or anybody can claim that they are laying down the last word as to what bodybuilding is, well that seems like something you can just bypass.
Your Training, Your Nutrition, Your Bodybuilding
With all that said, it still might help you to figure where you are in this confusing realm of bodybuilding, simply to be able to get the most out of what you want to do. If you are going to train to be a competitive lifter, that requires a different set of talents and learned skills, as well as a different approach to diet and training, than does a competitive bodybuilder, or a cross-training athlete from another sport or a fitness model or whichever choice (or combination of choices) you make. And yes, sometimes we’ll be guilty of lapsing into that catch-all term, bodybuilding, when we should be more precise and explain what we mean.
Finding a Workout
One thing that can help you is to find or develop or learn the most appropriate workout for whatever you’re doing. We see casual trainers who have signed up for what amount to intensive regimens that really only an experienced bodybuilder who’s aspiring to competition should be on. So you can waste your time and get no results, get injured, and generally just have a really unpleasant experience. You certainly have the freedom to change your mind, but if you can figure out what it is you’re training for, and what you want, you will stand a better chance of meeting those goals (if they’re not completely unrealistic), and you might not end up miserable from doing something you don’t want to do.
If there is a tyranny and confusion about working out, there is even more of this when it comes to eating. We’ve seen virtually every type of diet—many of them mutually exclusive—which its proponents insist are the only or the best ones. This is even more wrong than saying there is only one way to work out, or one best way. Again, you’ve got to use some common sense and take some personal responsibility in finding what is good nutrition and what works for you.
Some Tips for Beginners:
--seek out a reliable trainer: This can be difficult, but try to talk to a couple of prospective trainers, tell them your goals if you know them, and see what they tell you. You need to be matched up temperamentally with a trainer you at least tolerate if not like, and somebody who’s not going to hurt you or disrespect you.
--begin learning: Teach yourself everything you can. After all, it’s your body and your life, why not learn for yourself? It looks like an intimidating, confusing process, but it can be done.
--apply yourself: The cliché is that nothing worthwhile comes without effort, and that’s true in working out and eating. You don’t have to train like a pro athlete or competitor if you’re not, to gain health and fitness benefits, but you’ve got to put something of yourself into it.
--be patient: We’re an impatient species in an impatient world. Who wants to wait until tomorrow? Whether you want to lose 50 pounds, or bench press 300, build up your arms two inches bigger, or make the football team next fall—you’ve got to put in the time, the work, and, sorry to say, you’ve got to have some patience. Most of the stuff that tells you you’ll get fabulous results in a ridiculously short period of time is untrue. But you know that deep down, don’t you?
--have a life: Just because you’re working out, if you happen to fall in love with the activity, don’t neglect school or your job or your family or your personal growth or development in other areas. This is an old message, but still worthwhile.
--enjoy the work, enjoy the results: If you hate exercise, at least you can enjoy whatever positive results you get. If you like working out, you are ahead then. You will doubly enjoy. Enjoy and appreciate whatever health and fitness you have, it is a gift.
For Advanced Bodybuilders: Experiment
Moving along to advanced men and women who are into serious muscle-building, some of you may even compete, you are looking for any edge you can get, preferably a natural, drug-free one. Then don’t get stuck in that rut you’re in! So often, bodybuilders will say, “I’ve found the perfect workout for me, I’m not gonna change it,” which is fine, if you are making infinite gains, which nobody is. But a suggestion: try other workouts. What do you have to lose? If you have what you consider is a “perfect” workout (usually months later they won’t say that workout was so perfect, after they change it anyway), you can always go back to it after you try other ways. Too often, heavy-only trainers will refuse to change, stubbornly clinging to their methods of grinding out the heavier and heavier stuff, despite burning out, getting injuries and not making progress. Or moderate weight trainers won’t try a briefer, heavier workout. Change. Try to come up with new stuff. People in our sport say there’s nothing new, but if you haven’t tried it, it’s new to you. You might get additional gains from a method you have previously scorned. The body has its own ideas.
New Training and Nutrition
As for those who say there is nothing new in training and nutrition, there is this to consider: we may know much more in a theoretical way about the human body, how it grows muscle and sheds fat, than we have actually applied or been able to apply in a gym. Something in a laboratory, in a Petri dish, is not necessarily the same thing as taking place in your body at home after you have completed a chest and back workout that rocks.
Also, as much as we know about the human body, for example in medicine and nutrition, there is a huge amount we don’t know. Why would it follow that we know everything there is to know about training and nutrition then? What other sport but bodybuilding says, “Oh, just lift heavy weights and eat this, don’t eat that, and that’s all there is to it.” No, the truth is, bodybuilding stopped growing as a discipline not only when steroids took over, but when people felt they knew everything there was to know and so stopped learning. Imagine if medicine or engineering, two applied sciences, had that attitude. But then ignorance often rules; years ago there was a contention that science had disproved there was such a thing as a curveball in baseball, though you sure couldn’t convince the major league hitters of that who couldn’t hit one. Take ideas and test them for the practical results, the real-world consequences.
So the lesson is, keep experimenting, keep learning, and keep applying new ideas to training and nutrition, and use new combinations of old ideas that worked and improve upon them. Other sports do this all the time. Only bodybuilding doesn’t because its emphasis has been entirely on grabbing the latest drug out of a lab or even the latest supplement that people feel will mimic drug-like results.
Learning to get more out of a given rep or set of exercise has always been the quest of any serious trainer, no matter what your goals. To that end, there’s a lot of talk about slowing down reps, even counting the cadence, with time under tension or load being buzz words for this. There’s a drawback, however. When you are counting these seconds, or slowing down the rep, you may not be concentrating on the contraction or a pause and squeeze at the bottom or top, or even on the muscle, you can just be thinking only about lifting the weight. To explain this further, you can lift a weight slowly, while releasing a lot of tension, so that someone watching you would only observe that you have strict form (what we’d call more precisely “strict external form”), yet you haven’t stressed the muscle with the amount of force of the contraction or tension which you originally intended. That desired contraction could be called “strict internal form,” or the kind of tension we seek to place on a muscle continuously in a bodybuilding set (different than force training or strength/power tension).
So, you may be trying to achieve something with what you think is a super-strict technique, a much slower rep, when you are actually neglecting the contraction, pause and squeeze that you might have wanted to include. Sometimes you can try to put too many techniques into a given set or rep. Figure out what you want to do and use the appropriate technique, don’t try to include every technique in a rep, set or workout, and check your body for feedback. It tells you a lot.
Many will say that the future of athletics or bodybuilding is in drugs, and drugs only, yet those of us who practice drug-free training (our folly?) and nutrition, implicitly believe otherwise. Where is the future of working out going to come: one place is from other sports. Combining techniques and information about the body we derive from other activities, some seemingly unrelated to bodybuilding’s concerns of building muscle, will hold larger application. Also, getting away from the simplistic nature of intensity vs. volume (a false either-or debate) will yield significant neglected and even new workout approaches. The study of recovery, which we seem to equate only with laying comatose on the couch over the weekend (or for three weeks if you’re an HIT trainer—you’ll know what I mean), will become as important a discipline as studying about the actual workout. The Russians have studied and developed recovery techniques that bodybuilders might learn, adapt and use; so too have other American sports. The days of natural, drug-free trainers simply following a watered-down version of drug-training will one day, we think, end.
The future of natural bodybuilding waits to be written.