In the 40 years that I’ve been training I’ve gained over 100 pounds! It’s taken a lot of work and workouts to go from a skinny 6’1, 145 pound basketball/baseball player to a 250 pound lifetime drug free bodybuilder. I say “bodybuilder” knowing that the term has different meanings to different people. Yes, I did compete at one time; 4th place in the Natural Northern California, 3rd place in the Natural Western USA. I lost 30 pounds in 12 weeks while dieting on 3000 calories a day. I even judged for awhile, and MC’d, and prepped countless athletes for the stage, plus covered numerous shows as part of the media. What I’m talking about today however is bodybuilding as a training style, what it means to some versus what it originally was, and still is, to me.
Lately, unfortunately, bodybuilding has fallen from favor and in truth, much of the fault goes to the sport itself and the way it is practiced. It’s not supposed to be only about getting ready for shows, or self glorification, or excessive chemical manipulations, or becoming a fitness guru, selfie expert, or non functional, mirror athlete. You can pursue bodybuilding in those ways or with those approaches, but that is not bodybuilding and should not be what defines a bodybuilder. It is about trying to achieve a physical ideal, not so much for the stage but for yourself. It’s about being a physical culturist and embracing a lifestyle of striving to improve yourself through training, discipline, nutrition, effort, and time. Trophies are great, but not required. 20 inch arms are great, but not required. 500 pound bench presses are great, but not required. It’s a mental and physical pursuit of excellence within your own set of limitations and advantages. It can and should be very positive, even zen like.
Training for bodybuilding has come to be thought of by many as very isolation based with lots of individual bodypart work taking the forefront. Depending on specific goals and your current level, while this type of training can and will certainly be applied, it’s not the essence or definition of true bodybuilding training. Bodybuilding was built on the foundation of multi-joint, compound movements to build the initial base of size, strength, and stability required to create your best possible physique. The first bodybuilding workout for myself and many of the greatest champions were whole body workouts designed to do just that. Exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses, power cleans, barbell curls, standing calf raises, bent over barbell rows, pull ups, dips, sit-ups and leg raises were pretty much the majority of what everyone did. As you became more advanced, the first split workouts would take place. It was generally a 2-day split, training the body over two workouts and the basics were still well represented with a few other variations included to better target specific areas. This type of training would go on for months, if not years, before the next split level was graduated to out of the necessity of recovery and the desire to push certain areas a bit further. But the core, foundational movements still remained, unless you were so gifted at putting on size that you only needed to focus on shape or detail.
During my early bodybuilding training I still did some running and played basketball, softball, did martial arts, and some tug of war competitions. So doing the basic lifts and including some power and explosive type movements were beneficial. But historically, most people in bodybuilding were always training for another lifting sport. Many of the early legends were also competitive Olympic Weight Lifters or power lifters including John Grimek, Sergio Oliva, Arnold, Franco Columbu, Steve Reeves, etc. Those basics in power and strength were a standard part of bodybuilding training. As the focus on developing the ideal physique grew, only then would a greater emphasis be put on training routines that maximized appearance and occasionally sacrificed a degree of function. But when the desire to improve the entire physique level again needed to be emphasized, the meat and potato basics were the first tools out the box.
I remember my standard back workouts which I did for a number of years. Wide grip chins, bent over barbell rows and deadlifts. The first set of chins was with just my bodyweight for about 15 reps. Then I would do 2 sets with a 50 pound plate hanging from my belt for 8-10. I would finish with a final bodyweight set. Next would be BB rows; 135 x 15, 225 x 12, 275 x 8, 315 x 6-8! Basic and hard, certainly not glamorous. 315 was where I would start my deadlifts; 315 x 8, 365 x 6, 405 x 4-5 and occasionally if I was feeling myself, 465 for whatever I could get. Then I would be on to my next bodypart, either shoulders or arms or whatever. This was pretty standard. Later that back routine evolved to substitute in T-bar rows, or cable pulldowns, or cable rows, or one arm dumbbell rows. These days, I love Hammer Strength rows and pulldown variations, but the principles are still the same, hard and heavy and basic with good form and varying rep ranges. Intensity matters, pace matters, focus matters! You were there to put in the work you needed to get better, then go home. The next day you would be back to the grind. This has gone on for years. This is what I’ve done over 10,000 times!
True bodybuilding training involves an evolution of doing what your body needs and focusing on your weak points. The goal is to build ideal size with the right proportions and symmetry; the left needs to match the right, the top need to match the bottom, the back needs to match the front. The whole physique is evaluated as a unite in terms of how the individual body parts relate to each other and to the whole. Nothing should be either too large or too small. Exercise selection, rep ranges, rest periods, poundages, training techniques, etc. are all chosen as they relate to achieving the best results. Everything has a purpose. Physique competitions bring into play a peaking period where you try to make your physique accomplishments as visible as possible via maximizing your leanness level, but you never sacrifice the overall package just to overemphasis one aspect. But the real competition of being a bodybuilder is with yourself and what you are capable of becoming.
So yes, bodybuilding training can be a bit confusing as it can be a lot of different things depending on your goals and needs. It’s certainly not the best training for everything or the only way to train, but it can be combined with other training types successfully. It is a form of training that in my experience gives you great control over appearance, shape, strength and physique balance and how your body visually responds to exercise. Bodybuilding as a training base has taken me an amazing distance from where I began!