(+ HOW TO DESIGN A BETTER BODYBUILDING PROGRAM)
Walk into any commercial gym and you’re bound to witness a lot of machine work and a few free weight staples – dumbbell presses, shoulder presses, pull ups, squats, deadlifts, bicep curls, and the like.
You might see a token landmine press, goblet squat or inverted row but these less run-of-the-mill exercises are few and far between. And that’s because the vast majority of gym-goers are following a very similar weight training template – some variation of a bodybuilding program that they picked up on bodybuilding.com or a similar media outlet. They’re all following the same misguided approach to building muscle.
Now don’t get me wrong – bodybuilding methods are useful tools, but training like a bodybuilder is altogether different and that’s where problems arise for a lot of people who follow generic workout programs.
Let’s get personal and have a chat with Mike from Fitness First.
A typical upper / lower body training split looks like the following:
Monday – Chest + Shoulders
Tuesday – Quads
Wednesday – Off
Thursday – Hamstrings
Friday – Back
Saturday – Arms
Sunday – Off
Mike was in his best shape at 32 and is fighting to regain the thick pecs, stacked shoulders and sweeping quads he once had.
It’s a real struggle.
In recent years, a nagging shoulder injury has wreaked havoc on his upper body training. Beloved exercises such as barbell bench press and overhead press had to go as they would cause a sharp pain at the front of his shoulder and exacerbate the problem.
Mike is also finding it increasingly difficult to get into the same positions he once could. Barbell back squats are uncomfortable and he must round his back slightly to deadlift off the floor.
Mike is determined to build his body back up, but feels as though he is fighting a losing battle. To add insult to injury – he feels stiff, achy and suffers intermittent pain of the neck, back and shoulders outside the weight room.
The story of Mike’s struggle can be replicated a million times over because, unfortunately, that’s the way things go for a lot of people when they adopt a pure bodybuilding workout style.
So If that’s the case, what motivates people to take it up in the first place?
Why does it often cause problems in the long run?
And what’s the solution!?
Let’s find out…
The Appeals of Bodybuilding
Most people train to look better. It’s a fact and there’s NOTHING wrong with that. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, bodybuilding methods are mighty effective. Just look at the greek god like physique competitors of today and it’s easy to see why many people gravitate toward the same style of muscle building workout.
Done right, bodybuilding programs will get you jacked. The research is very clear on that. The characterises of which include:
- Moderate set/rep schemes (3-4 set of 6-12)
- Moderate intensities (60-75% 1RM)
- Relatively short rest periods (60-120 seconds)
- High volume (lots of exercises for a particular muscle group)
EFFECTIVE FOR FAT LOSS
Weight training is a powerful tool for losing fat. It jacks up fat burning hormones like growth hormone, burns a gazillion calories and most importantly, builds lean muscle tissue, which is very metabolically active.
In non-geek speak, this means that gaining muscle ramps up the amount of calories you can burn at rest (resting metabolic rate) which helps in the effort to burn fat, ie. get lean and stay lean.
The Pitfalls of Bodybuilding
Now let’s look at why bodybuilding can F- people up in the long run.
MOST BODYBUILDING TRAINING PLANS SUCK
Notice that I didn’t say ALL bodybuilding programs. The reality is, most workout plans you get for free on the interwebz are generic and cookie-cutter.
They DO NOT take into account YOUR physical status: how well you move, your strength, your posture, your experience (and competency), injury history etc.
They DO NOT include warm-up routines, mobility work, cardio – all the other important tenants of a well-rounded bodybuilding routine.
They DO NOT stray far from barbells, dumbbells and machines – lacking movement and exercise variety.
You get the idea.
This might not seem like a big deal and you might even experience great results in the first few months, even years from this style of training.
But in the long run, the generic bodybuilder program tends to beat the joints down and lead to a host of orthopedic conditions like rotator cuff tears. A caveat to all the above is if you pay top dollar to an experienced bodybuilding coach who will work with you on a more personal level and give you authentic workout tips.
I trained under world renowned bodybuilding coach John Meadows for one year. I did this because I was eager to learn the most effective methods for building muscle. John’s style attracted me, in part because his methods are known for being very effective (and brutal!) but also because he is a stickler for joint health and longevity – so he is damn smart about programming exercises with that in mind. I must have put on 8-10 kg in that year and was the most muscular I’ve ever been. Nowadays, I still use many of John’s techniques but don’t program in the same way as a bodybuilder would.
Training muscles over movements.
Casual and pro bodybuilders alike have one primary goal – to maximise muscle mass. Unsurprisingly then, training is structured around muscle groups and there is a heavy focus on isolation work.
Here’s the problem though: our body doesn’t function in isolation, so this approach often fails to develop the smaller joint stabilizers, which can lead to muscle imbalances. When muscles are unbalanced across any given joint, it screws up joint mechanics. And when you add loaded exercises onto poorly functioning joints, they wear down FAST. Injury is inevitable.
Lack of consideration for mobility / joint health.
When muscle building is the be all end all, mobility becomes an afterthought.
“Ain’t got time for that.” We all want to build mass and increase strength, BUT:
Our body requires constant and varied movement to maintain optimal joint health. Failure to respect this and the body adapts in an unfavourable way: joints become stiff, muscles become tight and we gradually become more and more immobile.
As the saying goes “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
A SMARTER way to build your body
If you’re planning to compete as a bodybuilder, then there is merit in training like one. Just make sure you enlist the help of an experienced coach. For everyone else, the remaining 99.9% of the lifting population, there are a few tweaks you can make to your weight training plan to avoid common pitfalls and ensure that you build a body that functions as good as it looks.
Train movements not muscles.
Rather than base weight training around muscle groups, base it around movement patterns instead. You’ll improve your physique, develop functional muscle and strength, all while improving mobility and joint health.
There are four main categories that need to be considered. Structure your training in a way that places equal emphasis across ALL of these categories:
(Side Notes: As for the isolated exercise ‘stuff’ – you don’t need to omit it from your plan, go ahead and sprinkle it in, just don’t base your training around it. Also, it’s a good idea to rotate exercises every 3-6 weeks as it mitigates the risk of repetitive strain injuries).
Examples: Bench Press, Dumbbell Press, Floor Press, Push Ups, Overhead Press.
Examples: Pull Ups, Lat Pulldown, Dumbbell Rows, Cable Rows, Chest Supported Rows, Face Pulls.
Examples: RDL’s, Good Mornings, Hip Thrusts, Sumo Deadlifts, Back Extensions.
Examples: Barbell Squats, Goblet Squats, Landmine Squats, Split Squats, Lunges.
I would also consider Core as another important category. You can sprinkle in core / ab workout exercises across yourtraining week.
Examples: Palloff Presses, Body Saws, Cable Anti-Rotation, Leg Raises, Roll-outs.
Less machines. More free weights and bodyweight loaded exercises.
Free weights and bodyweight loaded exercises give you more bang for the buck. They build body weight strength, functional muscle and athleticism. They develop core stability, robust joints and have a strong carry over to life outside the gym. Consider swapping out your machine exercises for bodyweight loaded or free weight alternatives. Here are 3 exercise videos to illustrate what I’m talking about:
1. A pull up variation instead of pull-downs
2. TRX or Inverted rows instead of seated rows
3. Sled pulls instead of leg extensions
Adapt exercises to fit YOUR movement capacity.
Every single exercise that you do has movement prerequisites. If you can’t get into the overhead position, then guess what? You shouldn’t be overhead pressing. Sounds logical but this point is very often ignored. Our bodies are great compensators and will find a way to get from a – b.
Take overhead pressing as an example. If you can’t get into an overhead the position with proper form, no worries. Without you even realising it, you will arch the back a little and move excessively through the shoulder joint to get the weight overhead.
This is NO BUENO.
The resulting dysfunctional movement will be damaging to your joints and surrounding soft tissue structures.
Here’s the good news: Every exercise can be adapted to fit your movement capabilities. Choose exercises wisely you’ll get far better results when your form is on point and you avoid damaging your body.
A few examples:
Overhead press causing you pain? Landmine Press instead. It’s still working the same muscle groups, but doesn’t require that you press directly overhead – keeping your shoulders out of the danger zone.
Lack the hip and ankle mobility for a solid back squat? Correct exercise selection is important, so choose Goblet or Landmine Squats instead. The front loaded weight allows you to keep a more upright torso and achieve greater squat depth.
Can’t deadlift without rounding your back? Raise the platform OR choose a different style. This simple modification will allow you to deadlift with properly positioned joints, preventing any undue stress on the spine which can lead to low back pain.
Prioritise your mobility
Mobility is the foundation to EVERYTHING exercise related. The better you move, the better your training will be and the more you’ll get out of your efforts in the weight room. With solid mobility:
- You will be able to perform a greater variety of exercises.
- You will have more control over your body, better coordination, and therefore better technique across any given exercise.
- You will Improve joint health and longevity, which will allow you to train for years to come, without stiffness and orthopedic conditions creeping up on you.
- The list goes on…
And while I encourage a thorough and specific warm-up as an integral part of quality training, warming up IS NOT going to improve mobility in the long run.
For that, you must make a greater time investment. Here are some options – find what works best for you:
- Dedicate a portion of your training time to working on your mobility limitations, such as the first or last 10 to 15 minutes.
- Dedicate 1- 2 training days to mobility work. I personally like to schedule ‘mobility + metcon’ days as it kills 2 birds with 1 stone. I’ll kick things off with the metcon (fancy name for cardio) and then work on mobility when my body is properly warmed up. I’m having great success with this strategy.
- Use the rest time between sets of exercises to work on your mobility limitations. For example: super-set squats with cat-camels to mobilise the spine.
I would be an insensitive asshole if I wrapped this up without helping to rebuild Mike with a sample workout plan that he can actually maintain!
Here’s a more sensible muscle building workout routine that focuses on both upper and lower body and draws upon much of what was just proposed:
Training Program Week Overview:
Monday – Legs (Squat dominant)
Tuesday – Upper Body (Push focus)
Wednesday – Mobility + Cardio
Thursday – Legs (Hinge dominant)
Friday – Upper Body (Pull focus)
Saturday – Mobility + Cardio
Sunday – Off
- Stepped down the weight training to 4 times per week with this training day split. This allows more time to be dedicated to mobility work and is PLENTY of stimulus to still build muscle mass.
- Strength training based on movement patterns not individual muscle groups. This ensures that the foundational human movement patterns are worked AND it guarantees that all muscles are targeted anyway, so it’s a double win!
- Inserted two dedicated mobility days per week. This will help to combat all that desk-bound activity and will slowly rebuild Mike into a better functioning human, so he moves like his younger self.
- I would encourage Mike to pick shoulder friendly exercises, such as:
Push: Loaded push-ups, floor press, landmine press.
Pull: Ring pull-ups, face-pulls, dumbbell chest supported rows.
Squat: Safety bar or goblet squats.
Deadlift: Using a raised platform or trap bar – both are better options when hip mobility is limited.
This is a brief overview. But it should give you a solid idea of the changes from a pure bodybuilding program so that Mike can REBUILD his body, rather then continue to DESTROY it.
Follow these guidelines to build your body in a SMARTER way. Don’t think you can stick to a single type of workout and see results. Don’t expect to rival the monsters on the Olympia stage, but DO EXPECT to look, move and function better than ever, and be able to enjoy an active lifestyle all the while. And, most importantly, be resilient and built to last.
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