How Bodybuilding Training Differs From Strength Training
Different goals beget different training strategies
Bodybuilder Lee Priest (above) backstage sporting a 4% body fat percentile – artificially low and unsustainable
There are major tactical and strategic differences between bodybuilding training and the periodized lifting protocols used in hardcore strength training. The differences in training styles and workout content are the logical result of radically divergent goals.
Bodybuilding training is designed to increase muscle size. Bodybuilding training is divorced from performance. The workout goal is to maximally inflate current muscle tissue, or construct new muscle tissue, new muscle not marbled with an unacceptable amount of body fat. For the bodybuilder, any strength increases resulting from bodybuilder training are an unintended benefit.
Strength training’s goal is to improve strength. The benchmark, the report card, being performance in the key resistance training lifts. Strength is measured by increases in the poundage-handling ability; or increases in the number of reps performed with a particular poundage. For the strength trainer any muscle size gains are an unintended benefit.
The mission of the hardcore athlete is to increase their current quotient of usable athletic strength and to improve to a significant degree. Slight increases barely move the performance needle. The goal is profound: create radical improvements in strength as evidenced by performance in the Core Four movements: squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press.
The Core Four need be done when the athlete is fully rested, using highly specific techniques, compound multi-joint exercises that utilize a full range-of-motion and are done with limit-equaling or limit-exceeding poundage for low reps.
The strength athlete continually pushes against the limits of capacity. Capacities shift, day to day, week to week. Regardless, if capacities are diminished or enhanced, equaling, or exceeding those capacities is where the gains lie hidden in plain sight. The strength athlete systematically seeks to exceed previous poundage or rep limits using periodized preplanning. Every periodized session has specified goals.
The goal of strength training is to grow stronger. To become stronger the trainee needs to generate a 102% effort when 100% rested. The maximal rested effort triggers strength gains and in turn, hypertrophy. To strengthen and grow a muscle requires extreme physical effort, herculean effort. The key to successful strength training is to generate small consistent gains, week in week out.
- Train at 102% when the body is 100% rested
- There is no strength gain to be had training at 102% when the body is 79% rested
There are no strength (or speed) gains to be had training all out when fatigued. Another unintended consequence of successful strength training: stronger makes any athlete faster, successful strength training creates more muscular horsepower. There can be no speed without strength and becoming stronger makes everyone faster.
Hardcore power training (done right) builds, thickens, and strengthens bones, heavy poundage turns tendons and ligaments into steel cable. Heavy power training makes an athlete more durable, more resilient, and more resistant to injury and blows.
Further compress the minimal amount of time required to practice hardcore strength training by incorporating super-sets, tri-sets, etc., Alternate push-pull movements, stressing muscles lying on opposite sides of a limb or torso. Mirror-image movements make short and infrequent sessions shorter yet.
A young Lee Priest at around 8% body fat: healthy, functional and plenty defined enough
The bodybuilder’s goal while engaged in bodybuilding training is divorced from any performance requirement. There is no athletic test to be mastered, no lift to be improved upon, no sport of skill to be done on “show day.” On the day of a pro competition, the competing pros look like mythologic Gods. Despite their vibrant appearance, these men are weak, tired, starved and dehydrated.
Like gulag prisoners, pro bodybuilders are overworked and starved. The pros drain the body of fluids to obtain maximum muscular delineation and detail. They use a series of bodybuilding training procedures and protocols to forcibly morph themselves into a non-sustainable physiological state, a state needed to attain the sub-5% body fat percentile required to be competitive.
Pro bodybuilders are great actors. Onstage, they project and portray a myth: tanned Gods descended from Olympus, these are the leanest, most muscular, most vibrant, and capable men on the face of the planet! The pro bodybuilder on the day of a major competition is factually exhausted, depleted, dehydrated, and in danger of collapse. A top pro on the day of a major competition would be unable to run 25-yards.
As a writer for Muscle & Fitness magazine at its mighty prime in the 1990s, I had a front row center seat and backstage pass for the Olympia, the Night of Champions, and the Arnold Classic. I often wandered backstage and was continually shocked at the contrast between the onstage versus the backstage demeanor of the contestants.
Onstage, the men were the ultimate humans: inflated, massively muscled, ripped to the bone, tanned, manically smiling, white teeth aglow, swaggering, in states of perpetual semi-flexion, these muscle monsters were, without doubt, the greatest bodybuilders on the planet.
They would pose individually and in groups: preening, strutting, elbowing one another, attempting to electrify the audience when they posed to music at the “night show.” The instant the pros walked offstage and got backstage they would collapse. They were drained, starved, depleted by the procedures and protocols of bodybuilding training needed to attain the requisite sub-5% body fat percentile, this while carrying 245 + pounds of hungry muscle.
Immediately before a show, pros become dangerously depleted. The body fat percentiles dip so low their feet hurt when walking barefoot on hard floors. They had no fat on the foot soles to cushion sharp bones, thus making every step feel as if they are walking on broken glass. Onstage the pro enters an oxygen-depleted state of continual semi-flexion.
They must stay semi-flexed for their entire time onstage. The top pros are called out for individual and group posing, further draining their already drained bodies. The confident charisma the top pros maintain onstage disintegrates the instant they walk offstage. On contest day, many suffer from dehydration so severe muscles cramp without warning. These involuntarily spasms can become so severe the bodybuilder needs hospitalization.
In the 1990s, one famous IFBB pro hit a front double bicep pose at a big show. He locked up: he was so dehydrated that he was unable to relax his flexed muscle. He had a whole-body spasm. Stiff as a statue, he fell over backwards, still locked in his double-bi pose. The paramedics ran onstage, jabbed him with a needle-full of something and rushed him to the hospital.
He was administered emergency saline solution to rehydrate his parched muscles. He had leeched all the liquid out of his muscles and was a few minutes away from having a heart seizure: the heart is just another muscle, one that can cramp with deadly results.
Another trick of the trade: after starving down for weeks, after dangerously reducing liquid intake, pro bodybuilders would often take powerful diuretics to pull the last traces of liquid from the body. In doing so, they dramatically improved day-of-show muscular clarity. When bodybuilders look their best, they are at their worst, athletically, and from any health, or fitness vantagepoint. Competitive bodybuilders present an onstage image, a physical appearance of invulnerability - that is exactly opposite their weakened, worn-down, starved, and drained reality.
These severe and extreme tactics are only employed in the final weeks and days before a major show. Bodybuilding nutrition before the extremeness of the final contest prep is sane, safe, and highly recommended. Bodybuilders are the master of body fat reduction. Steal their fat-reduction methods!
How do you melt away the excess body fat without melting away hard-earned gym muscle? Ask a bodybuilder! Anyone can starve themselves and lose body weight. Bodybuilders discovered (with decades of contest preparation trial and error) that crash-dieting is counterproductive, unhealthy, unnecessary, and harmful. A precipitous cutting of calories triggers the body’s primal defense network and slams the brakes on the metabolism.
When the body perceives starvation, it will cannibalize its own muscle tissue, sparring precious body fat, the last line of defense against death. The starving body will preferentially strip muscle walls of amino acid content to fuel caloric shortfall, saving stored body fat.
Obese individuals routinely reduce from 300-pounds to 200-pounds yet remain obese. Starvation dieting melts muscle faster than it melts body fat. The end-product of a successful starvation diet is a miniaturized version of the crash-dieters previous obese self, now 100-pounds lighter, yet still carrying a 30% body fat percentile.
Bodybuilding’s attention to nutrition and its inclusion of cardio into the bodybuilding training template are highly recommended for anyone and everyone. Resistance training combined with disciplined nutrition and consistent cardio combine to create the ultimate body composition strategy.
No need for normal folks to seek unhealthy and unnaturally low body fat percentile levels. 10% is when a man achieves “the bodybuilder look.” Not coincidentally, 10-12% is maximally healthy. One hybrid solution is to combine consistent cardio and disciplined eating with a dose of hardcore strength training.
As Bruce Lee once observed, “Absorb what is useful, discard what is not.” Be clear on the lines of demarcation that exist between the resistance training strategies unique to bodybuilding training and differing strategies unique to strength training. Inflating a muscle via bodybuilding training is different than strengthening a muscle via strength training. Each require a specific mode and method; each makes totally different use of resistance training tools. Dramatically different strategies produce dramatically different results. As Jerry Lee Lewis once observed, “Be hot or be cold! Do not be lukewarm or the Lord will spew you forth from his mouth!” Amen.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.