It's almost the end of March, and if you're like most people, then your new year's resolution is probably dead in the water.
A few posts ago I talked about how I got into powerlifting over a year ago and some of the progress I had seen with it. Now, let me be clear that when I said "powerlifting" I really meant "strength training", but powerlifting is a more common buzz term so I used it instead. In reality they are very similar, but technically speaking powerlifting involves working towards improving the one-rep-max (1RM) on the squat, deadlift, and bench press for the purpose of competing in powerlifting meets. This may seem like the same thing as strength training, but often times training for strength will involve slight variations of exercises. Like I said, the differences are very minor.
What is an important distinction is the difference between strength training and bodybuilding. While both routines may involve similar exercises, the goals and the methods are different, and it is these subtle differences that I believe provide the key for why bodybuilding is harder to stick with, in my opinion.
Now, it is of course possible to get great results with any workout routine under the sun (with some dependence on what those "results" actually are), but the one thing they all have in common is that you must stick with them. A routine you do for 3 weeks and then get burnt out on is not something that will give you any kind of success, so always bear that in mind.
Before I get into too much detail, let's break down the differences between strength training and bodybuilding, which will shed light onto some of my later points.
What Is Bodybuilding?
This is more or less a rhetorical question these days, but bodybuilding is nonetheless a relatively new idea. It has its origins in the late 19th century, but really started to grow in popularity during the 1950s-60s, and then took off in the 1970s thanks in part to a certain former governor of California.
The purpose of bodybuilding is simple: to improve one's appearance. What this means exactly has changed somewhat over the years, but the general trend for men is to have broad shoulders, big chests, big upper backs, small waists (with a visible six-pack), and, of course, bulging biceps. Oh, and, I guess, legs...maybe?
It is, to me, no coincidence that bodybuilding gained popularity in America during the post-WWII era, simply because this was a time when we saw a change in the lifestyle of the modern man. More and more men got jobs working in offices, where they drove cars to work and sat down at desks all day, meaning that daily life was not nearly as physically demanding as it used to be for men. They didn't have to toil all day in a farm or a factory, and thus their lifestyle didn't provide them much exercise. To compensate for this, they began going to gyms, and since brute strength wasn't as necessary as it used to be, they focused on simply looking strong.
Now, this is not to say that bodybuilding won't make you stronger, it most likely will, but the point is that looking strong and being strong are still different things, and can come into conflict in some cases.
In order to accomplish the results of bodybuilding (big muscles), the methods used are usually to break muscles down, and then let them recover and grow. This is done by concentrating on one major group of muscles per session, trying to fatigue them as much as possible. The more a muscle is stressed, the more it will grow if given adequate rest and nutrition.
In order to fatigue muscles, many programs call for "isolation exercises" in which only a single joint is moved, concentrating a small group of muscles (think bicep curls). It is necessary to combine these movements with compound exercises (squats, deadlifts, bench press), but in practice many amateur bodybuilders forgo the heavy squats and deadlifts (at least in my experience). The number of reps are usually in the 6-12 range, and the rest intervals between sets are usually kept short (1-2 minutes) for maximum muscle fatigue.
Now, to contrast this with strength training...
What is Strength Training?
The methods of strength training, like those of bodybuilding, can vary, but the philosophy is the same: to become a stronger person. Usually "strength" is measured by the ability to lift an amount of weight for one rep.
In powerlifting, the "strongest" person is the one who lifts the greatest combined amount of weight in the squat, deadlift, and bench press. In strongman, the "strongest" person is the one who gets the highest score in the event, which involves some sort of lifting or carrying large, heavy things. In Olympic Weightlifting, the "strongest" person is the one who lifts the greatest combined amount of weight in the snatch and the clean and jerk.
For the purposes of this post, what I will be implying with the term "strength training" is the outline laid out by Mark Rippetoe in his book Starting Strength, which is a routine structured around 5 basic movements: the squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and power clean.
In a typical strength training program like that in Starting Strength, the rep count is kept at 5 for all lifts except the power clean, which is kept at 3. In any beginner strength training program, the goal is to increase the weight each session. Unlike bodybuilding routines, strength training routines will utilize most of the muscles in the body every training session, due to their emphasis on compound movements (most notably squats). The rest period between sets is also higher, at anywhere from 2-10 minutes, depending on the program.
Now that we know what each type of training is all about, let's see why I like strength training over bodybuilding...
Why Strength Training is Easier to Stick With
Firstly, it's objective.
When you train for strength, you can easily see that you are improving because you can lift more weight on the bar than you used to. This validation keeps your morale up in the early stages and makes you want to keep hitting personal bests. With bodybuilding, it's hard to notice subtle changes in your appearance on a day-to-day basis (so "before" pictures are recommended) but even so, you may get frustrated when you don't look like Arnold after you've been toiling in the gym for a month.
Secondly, it's a challenge.
All workout routines are challenging, but doing squats and deadlifts consistently adds their own challenge to the mix.
The five "basic" movements outlined in Starting Strength are anything but basic. They are compound movements that involve the coordination of many different muscles in order to perform correctly. Just like learning to play a new sport, learning these movements will involve quite a bit of time, and that learning process keeps things interesting (for me, at least). The challenge of trying to do a squat/deadlift/bench press/overhead press/power clean perfectly is something that will always be present, even after a good deal of experience. You will constantly be trying to tweak your form like a golf swing in order to get the most you can out of the exercise.
Thirdly, it's time-efficient.
A lot of bodybuilding routines will call for a 5-day split, which means you have an arms day, a chest day, a shoulders day, a back day, and a legs day (those are in order from the least to most frequently skipped). For each day, you could expect to do a bunch of different exercises in order to target the muscles, meaning you could spend upwards of 2 hours in the gym.
Early on, you can probably handle this, but sooner or later you will probably start to compromise the routine if you live a normal life with normal responsibilities. Once you start to compromise things, you will cease to progress, which will make you discouraged and you will eventually quit.
Starting Strength, on the other hand, involves 3 exercises per day, 3 days per week, and you can usually get done with the exercises in less than an hour. It's a great program for working people and/or people who just don't want to spend too much time in the gym. If that seems easy, then just know that the difficulty arises when you start to lift heavier weights (for you) and by the end of that session you will be more tired than you thought possible after doing 9 total sets of 5 reps each.
Fourthly, it's easier on the diet.
A bodybuilding routine will go through bulking and cutting phases. Bulking to add muscle and mass, and cutting to shed excess fat and look "ripped." Bulking is usually done in the winter and cutting is done in the summer so that you look good in a bathing suit.
Usually, bodybuilding diets involve "clean eating" which seeks to maximize lean proteins (bodybuilders eat a lot of chicken breast). For most people, these diets get pretty old after awhile, and all but the most hardcore will compromise. Most diets also don't recommend drinking alcohol since it is mostly empty calories, and if you can't drink by the pool and show off your nice bod then what's really the point, amirite?
Strength training, on the other hand, has looser diet restrictions. The purpose of building strength is best accomplished through having a constant caloric surplus, which means strength trainees are in more or less a constant bulking phase. If your goal is to lose weight, then never fear! Since you have extra padding already, your body will readily create muscle since it has a caloric surplus, which means you will shed lots of fat in no time! The key is that I said "fat" and not "weight", if you keep your diet the same then your weight will probably stay constant (at least until you get significantly stronger), but you will definitely look better in the long run.
Of course, if you do follow a strength training program and do eat a ton of food to gain size, then you probably won't get the coveted "six-pack," but just remember that six-packs are overrated and pursuing one in excess can lead to a lot of problems in other areas of training. A six-pack is like a Ferrari, it'd be nice to have, but if you compromise everything else you have to attain one, then it really doesn't do you much good.
Fifthly, it forces you to improve your overall health.
As someone who spends most of every day sitting down, I've developed bad posture and some muscle imbalances, and many people of our modern digital world are in the same boat.
There is a reason why many casual gym-goers forgo squats and deadlifts. "They make my knees hurt, they make my back hurt," they say. It's true, you can hurt yourself doing squats and deadlifts, and I am no exception.
But through pain can come progress. Every time my back hurts after a deadlift, instead of thinking of excuses for not doing deadlifts, I try to figure out what I am doing wrong, and how I can fix it. Through much of my research, I have realized that chronic sitting leads to a few muscle imbalances that likely cause me to overstress my low back when I lift things, and if I correct these imbalances then I can lift things without writhing back pain.
Squats are no different, most people physically won't be able to do a correct squat at first due to inflexibility in various muscles. These inflexibilities must be corrected if you want to be able to squat large amounts of weights without joint pain.
Now, this seems tedious, doesn't it? Wouldn't it be easier to just knock out some bench presses and curls? Yes, it would definitely be easier, and you probably wouldn't hurt your back in the process.
But at the same time, you would most likely just be reinforcing any muscle imbalances that you have, and one day the house of cards will come crashing down on you (or at the very least, your gains would come to a screeching halt).
Heavy lifting forces you to take an honest look at yourself, and figure out what is wrong with you. Is this fun? No. Is this easy? No.
I think Tony Robbins said it best, "If you can't, you must, and if you must, you can."
Am I advocating that you should go into the gym and get yourself seriously injured? No. If you are iffy about some pre-existing injuries, consult your doctor first. Otherwise, always start off light for exercises you've never done before and take baby steps up.
Sixthly, it's not running.
If you're like me, then you hate distance running. Well good news, strength training isn't distance running! It takes less time and is much more fun, in my opinion. If you want some cardio go play a sport or something.
Because most of us live very sedentary lives these days, it's never been more important to make time to be active.
So whether you like to bodybuild, powerlift, hurl big rocks around, move furniture, or just run around outside, doing something to get off your ass will probably help you with your health and well-being.
But if you want to go through some sort of body change, i.e. "I weigh this and I don't want to weigh this anymore" or "I look like this and I don't want to look like this anymore," then I recommend strength training. It won't take you from flab to fab in 6 weeks, but maybe, just maybe, you won't break a hip trying to get out of the bathtub when you're 80.