Be Elite. Don't Start with Bodybuilding.
I realize what I'm saying. In fact, I can almost hear the cumulative "what is this shit" coming from some of you before I even finish the content that backs the title. I hear the personal attacks coming and the questioning of the credentials too...
"This dude is like 5'9, 190 pounds; what does he know about building thick muscle and having an impressive physique? Does he even lift?"
"Great, another 26 year old know it all who trains at a commerical gym is writing about how to get an elite body. Does he even lift or does he just make his clients do squats on a BOSU ball?"
One. No BOSU balls, just flat ground. Two. Hard science paired with experience training clients, observing other fitness professionals, as well as trial and error with my own body has led to me to a few finite conclusions about what it takes to build an elite body.
Before you read further notice the title one last time... Don't Start with bodybuilding. That doesn't mean that bodybuilding isn't an effective modality for muscle growth and lean physiques, or that it is inferior to any other training style.
Rather, it doesn't serve as a great foundation if you are aiming to perform as well as you look!
Build your foundation. Then build your house.
MuscleMag and PreWorkout Powders
I remember the younger years. Full of vigor, NOxplode, and the latest arm blaster from the muscle magazines. What else did I need? I had youthful hormones, caffeine, and a sure-fire way to add inches to my arms in just six weeks!
I had a job at "supplement store" during my first few years of college. Yeah yeah, that was me convicining folks that Nitrotech was made from the milk of Zeus himself; I'm sorry. At the same time I was studying kinesiology at the University of Maryland, lifting on a regular basis, and spending most of my money on supplements...and alcohol....and Chipotle.
There is a lot of downtime working in a supplement store. You aren't exactly pumping cologne into the air, folding jeans, and jamming out to pseudo-club music while selling 49.99 T-shirts. (I also worked at a "clothing store" in college).
Thus, I found myself reading through all of the muscle magazines I could get my hands on. When it became quiet and boring in the store I immediately started reading.
Clearly, I wanted to look like the lifters in the magazines and so I followed the workout splits they would attach to their articles. All the muscles had their own day, sometimes I did legs, and of course everyday was arms day. I was always looking for bulletproof pecs, huge quads, and of course...the gun show. I saw a lot of progress early on, but as we know now much of it can be attributed to "newbie gains".
And just like that...I was a guy who simply trained bodybuilding splits. Always looking for a tighter focus to improve lagging body parts.
Now, none of that is inherently wrong. In fact, plenty of impressive physiques have been built on such a foundation of training, intense amounts of the correct foods, and an unwavering commitment for growth and progress.
In my case, there was no foundation in sound movements. My deadlifts were atrocious, my bench had a whole lot of dancing under the bar, and my idea of a leg workout involved more sets of leg extensions and leg curls than it did squats, lunges, or unilateral work.
It is important to note that bodybuilding is based around the idea of building big, innefficient muscles.
The goal is to maximize fluid and cellular hypertrophy so that the muscle takes on a larger size. While this is all fine and dandy it doesn't mean a damn when you find yourself in an impromptu deadlift battle, or want to play some pick up basketball.
Former B-ball star turned massive monster (Phillip Heath). Shout out for the Maryland Jersey
There isn't a focus on great barbell technique, optimizing lever angles, or mastering the hip hinge. Mobility and tissue work serve as a secondary focus to blood volumization and exercise variation. Power and explosive work does not do well to boost muscle growth since many studies have indicated that time under tension serves as the greatest factor in hypertrophy.
So what happens?
You end up weaker than your smaller friends, and moving through smaller ranges of motion that have no synchronization. In other words...you look stiff.
There is something missing
The Foundation (Enter the Science)
Strength and athleticism rely heavily on the neurological efficiency of muscles. Essentially, do all of the fibers available fire when called upon, or only the ones that are most used to functioning?
Furthermore, mastering these disciplines requires a focus on movements, and not muscles. For example, when you sprint you are not doing a repetition of quad extension and a repetition of hamstring curls in alternating fashion.
Rather, you are operating between open chain and closed chain exercises that require many muscles, not just the major movers of the legs, to fire in the correct order.
Neurological efficiency, movement mastery, and other factors such as aerobic and anaerobic capacity, mobility, flexibility, and core stability are all critical factors in building and maintaining a elite body.
For some though, muscle building is the answer. Especially with young athletes or females who've never followed a weight training program. Often times adding a few pounds of muscle mass can be the difference for these individuals. Enter a typical bodybuilding program that is modified for their age, sport, and body type.
This is an important distinction that a qualified coach can determine.
This is usually the exception; however, and not the rule.
Kitchen Renovations and Your Body
Imagine renovating a kitchen with the finest finishes all the while knowing the pipes, electric and structure itself sucks. You can have quartz countertops, stainless steel appliances, and the nicest country sink you could find. (Yeah, I watch HGTV...what about it).
Yet, everytime you turn on the water or run the dishwasher you find a leak. The lights never turn on and the room is clearly slanted. Instead of investing time fixing obvious problems and strengthening the structure you chose to spend thousands on cabinets and fixtures.
Now let's look at your body. Pecs, Lats, and an absolute "gun show". Yet, you are always hurt, pulling muscles, and can't lift as heavy like your friends. Your structure has failed you.
Essentially, you are always springing leaks, and you can never truly turn the lights on either.
What are you to do?
Tear it down of course.
Because I've lived this reality, and much like tearing down the finished kitchen I've spent years tearing down mistakes of my younger years and rebuilding a better, more elite body. I'm not alone either.
Gyms across the nation are filled with men who have made bodybuilding training their first love. Partial presses and bicep veins fill their dreams. Gallon jugs full of BCAA's firmly glued to their hands as they do their eleventh set of leg extensions.
Cardio is done on ellipticals at a snails pace, and sports are for kids. Who needs to throw a ball anyway if you aren't getting paid for it? Lifting form is refined, but not optimal, and while most are stronger than the average man; many are hardly considered "strong".
All hope isn't lost if this describes you. No matter how old you are there is still a chance to recapture mobility and athleticism, maximize your strength, and build a stronger, more stable body to navigate the Earth in.
What to Do if you Need a New Direction
First and foremost, congratulations on admitting you need more out of your body. Sure sure, everyone likes being the most jacked dude at the party, but your size schmedium shirts and tricep-pumping dips on the bathroom sink need to stop.
The most important thing you can begin your journey with is performing a movement assessment. Whether done by a trained professional (see FMS), physical therapist, or even by yourself; it is absolutely imperative to identify what your movement weaknesses and incapabilities are.
For example, if you have been smashing pecs three days a week there is a high probability that your shoulders will be internally rotated. Essentially, you are trying to hug yourself with your own arms 24-7. Not a good look and a sign that your shoulder mobility is bunk.
Another example could be that excessive development of the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves have made your legs look impressive in short shorts. Yet, the lack of focus on the glutes, hips, and tranverse abdominals has left you weak, immobile, and incapable of squeezing your butt if the condition of your underwear were depending on it.
Once you have figured out what your flaws are, discovered injuries and weaknesses, and established your baseline you can sit down and build your program outwards. You want to fix your movement, finally become strong, and rediscover that athleticism you lost long, long ago.
Here is your plan of action. Follow the rules listed below and see where you end up. I feel pretty damn confident that you'll love the body you have on the other end. I sure as hell know that I did.
For the record, I highly recommend this order. Doing strength training on top of shitty movements won't end well, and power training in lieu of actual limit strength is pointless.
Don't go to "Snap City"
Don't Be Drake. Although, you may be starting from the bottom.
The Renovation Project
Basic Conditioning and Movement Capabilities (4-6 weeks)
1A. Live on a Foam Roller, do yoga or pilates, and only lift in a full range of motion.
1B. Focus on mobility at the hips, ankles, thoracic spine, and shoulders.
1C. Relearn the major 4 lifts (overhead press, bench press, deadlift, squat) Do them perfectly. Learn where your levers are. Optimize your positions to reflect this.
1D. Master the ability to run at least 2 quality miles without stopping. You won't die.
Get Strong, Be Stable, Stay Mobile, Fuel up (12-16 weeks)
2A. Continue mobility work. This never stops.
2B. Train to be strong. Lift heavy objects. Do no more than 3 to 5 reps in most working sets.
2C. Do enough planks, fall outs, and heavy pulls that your "deep" core turns into an unbreakable concrete slab of awesome.
2D. Don't get fat, but don't stay shredded. Optimize your strength gains by eating carbs again. Oh, so tasty.
Rediscover athleticism, develop power, move like a Ninja (8 to 12 weeks)
3A. Mo' Mobility.
3B. Introduce power movements such as the kettlebell swing, box jump, and even the olympic lifts. 2 or 3 repetitions per set. Lots of Sets. Move perfect.
3C. Sprints. Sprints. More Sprints.
3D. Start playing a sport you used to love, wanted to learn, or just like watching. Goal = Move.
De-load, Conditioning, and bodyweight mastery (2-4 weeks)
4A. Stop lifting weights. If you can't do it with only your body just don't do it.
4B. Sprint, run distance, jump rope, swim, bike, streak through the quad. Get Aerobic.
4C. Pick 3 movements and learn ten new ways to execute them (i.e. pushup, pull-up, squat)
4D. Think movements, not muscles. Train full body everyday.
Boom, in 24-36 weeks you have completely redefined how your body acts, functions, and probably...looks. Now, what happens next matters just as much as everything above. You have a whole life of training ahead and you need to be prepared.
Take one week vacation from exercise.
Don't lift, don't run, don't do anything beyond mobility and tissue work. Take this opportunity to recover from a hard half-year (plus), and most importantly, pick your story.
At this point you have hopefully reset your body. There may still be nagging weaknesses or flaws in your movements. Chances are though, that you have addresses your shortcomings, fell out of love with bodybuilding exclusively, and now have developed a new appreciation for all forms of exercise.
I'd expect that at this point you'd want to feel some bodybuilding training. You'd likely want to incorporate elements of it back into your training, and chase muscular hypertrophy again. That is completely awesome and will only lend itself further to making you an elite body.
You can incorporate elements of bodybuilding again, but I don't recommend completely eschewing strength, power, and athleticism. Don't stop running and playing sports and return to full-on meathead status.
What to Expect when you're Expecting to Lift
If you are new to lifting and find yourself curious as to how you should proceed, than know this...
Many of strength coaches have learned that you can't slap a Lamborghini frame on a Honda chassis and expect to win the Les Mans. They aren't wrong!
Take the time build a strong, stable, and mobile body first, then follow it with a big ol' dose of muscle size. You won't regret it.
The point of this post is to help you realize that bodybuilding isn't the only way to train, and it sure as hell can cause a lot of deficiences in the capabilities of the human form; even if the physique appears to be impressive.
Don't look great and function like a sack of potatoes. You are better than that.
That's all folks.