Wednesday, November 13, 2013

In Defense of Bodybuilding

I've been at this for a while now. Not as long as some of the older industry vets but long enough to have tried some things. Well...a lot of things. With the notable exception of Prancercise I've at least tested the waters of every emerging fitness trend over the last decade and a half. It's been a long, strange trip but I've learned more than a few things along the way.

I think one of the most important lessons I've learned is resistance to the trends themselves. At their core trends are often based on something solid. Tae Bo was founded on the basis that martial arts are an incredible and fun work out. Totally valid. This fact remains true despite the fact that the average Tae Bo workout (or as we know it today, cardio kickboxing) resembles a montage from Flashdance far more than an ancient art used to temper the mind and body. Very similarly I can also tell you that functional fitness has some valid points; the human body should totally be trained as a whole, functioning unit. What I can't tell you is how multicolored rubber balls and bands or something called a both sides up trainer (despite the boldfaced warning on the platform specifically warning against using a particular side) has any relation or bearing to the functionality of your body.

Fitness is cool these days and this simple fact has caused a myriad of ripple effects across the industry and culture. Leading the charge we've got CrossFit and Spartan Race (who are now both owned by Reebok, hmm...) and falling in behind we've got everything from boot camps and cardio bodyweight blasts to zumba and yogilates. There are now more options than ever for the wanna-be  and would-be exerciser and gyms are coming up with such oddly specific classes that people are running out of excuses. Need to work on your flexibility while preparing for your coming child and caring for your canine? No problem! check out Pre-natal Doga!! (For the record no, I don't know if this is a thing and please don't ruin that for me)

Despite how prolific it once was and that in my opinion (as well as the opinions of a multitude of others) it is singlehandedly responsible for the popularity of well muscled leading men, bodybuilding seems to have all but disappeared from the popular culture-sphere. I fully understand that not everyone wants to be an Arnold Schwarzenegger lookalike but I find the contention that you're not bodybuilding because you don't want to get HUGE f*cking hysterical. That sh*t doesn't just happen by accident. If you could slip and fall and WHOOPS you've now got a six pack and 23" arms people like me wouldn't ever write articles like this.

We should all be able to be honest with ourselves. In terms of setting goals it's really hard to reach a goal you're not honestly even trying for. We've been sold this idea that you can't just go to the gym because you want to look good, nooooo. That would be vain and vanity is BAD. Instead you should go to yoga and the lululemon store and every organic food outlet within five miles of your house all while ceremoniously logging every step of your journey to health and exercise enlightenment on your incredibly well curated facebook timeline. Or, conversely, you could sign up for every obstacle race under the sun, tell everyone and their mothers that you're going to run a tough mudder (you f*cking badass you) and then not workout or train once but make DAMN SURE you post at least forty photos of your shirtless mud covered beer gut while you drink your celebratory craft beer.



Ok, ok, I'll stop being a dick (at least as much as I'm capable). You see the point here is not for me to tell you to stop doing yoga or stop running races. That's all good stuff. My point is simply this: be honest with yourself when you consider your reasons for working out. Why? Well, it's really pretty simple. Because while there are about a thousand different definitions of fitness that are all entirely valid in their own way, there is also legitimately a best way to accomplish most of these widely varied goals and troves upon troves of recorded knowledge from all of those who've tried before you.

The simple truth is that bodybuilding gets a bad rep because it IS vain and it's main purpose is to very specifically alter the appearance of your physique. The fitness industry wants you to believe this sh*t too, because it's really lucrative for us. We don't want you to actually learn how to effectively change your physique because then you wont continue giving us hundreds and hundreds of your dollars in exchange for our questionable knowledge and training techniques. TRUE fitness isn't about vanity and how you look. REAL health isn't just about the size of your biceps. In order to achieve GENUINE fitness you have to run and jump and climb and do cartwheels while wearing weighted vests and having someone resist 2 of your four limbs with rubber bands on alternating sides SO COME TAKE OUR BOOTCAMP!!!

Just...ugh...god damn it.

WHY BODYBUILDING IS AWESOME

1. Bodybuilding teaches you about your anatomy - Bodybuilding is typically done in a body part split and involves a lot of muscular isolation. Despite all the arguments that isolation is bad (it isn't) and that your body works as a whole, contiguous unit (both completely true and utterly irrelevant), isolating muscles requires you to know a few things. First, it requires you very simply to know the locations of most of your muscles which, frankly, you probably should anyway. Secondly it requires you to know which types of motion produce activation of which muscles. Bodybuilding familiarizes you with the step by step musculoskeletal interactions and functions of your body joint by joint, muscle by muscle and that knowledge is something that a ton of people, even a lot of very experienced exercisers, are lacking.
Bodybuilding was my first foray into exercise and it gifted me with an invaluable resource in my ability to understand my own body and how it moved.If nothing else it will significantly improve your ability to heal yourself and to seek professional assistance for your musculoskeletal needs. "I think I did something to my tricep tendon because it hurts to extend my arm" is a much more useful cue than "my elbow hurts."
Look at it this way, a professional race car driver may not know how to dismantle and repair every component of their engine and suspension, but I guarantee you they have a very specific idea of what almost all of the components do and how they're used. If you view your body as a high performance machine, the same principle should apply.

2. Bodybuilding teaches you feel your muscles - In addition to the knowledge of how to activate your muscles and which muscles are responsible for producing what kinds of movement bodybuilding creates intense body awareness as it requires you to hold static posture and squeeze the everloving sh*t of the muscle/group that you're isolating. I used to think the whole "squeeze" thing was some esoteric bodybuilder broscience nonsense until I experienced it. It's far easier to recognize weaknesses and deficiencies in your body when you first learn how it's supposed to feel when it's working.

These photos were all taken from Strength Training Anatomy by Frederic Delavier. Buy. This. Book. Seriously.

3. Bodybuilding lets you change your physique in a deliberate and controlled fashion - Sure, doing CrossFit until you puke your lungs out next to the lifting platform could very well get you jacked but you don't really have much control of what kind of jacked. Want to make your biceps bigger? There's an exercise for that. Want to add some width to your quads? We've got one for that too. Genetics will always play a central role in what your physique can potentially become - meaning that the exact shape of your muscles isn't entirely within your control. That being said, bodybuilding is the best (non surgical) tool that we have for creating specific changes in our bodies on an aesthetic level

4. Bodybuilding can significantly change the way you look without requiring you to get nauseous every workout - In any kind of training intensity is key. It is the main factor in determining the overall efficacy of your workout. That being said, there does seem to be a growing mentality in the fitness world that you can just work out balls to the wall all the time no matter what and that somehow this will give you the body that you're looking for. That's like saying that if you go into a construction site with no plan whatsoever but just start putting shit together as hard and as fast as possible you'll end up with your dream home. I suppose it's possible if you're incredibly lucky (and in this case you would be one of those genetically gifted jerks who can look like Ryan Reynolds while facing three pints of Ben & Jerry's ice cream nightly) but for most of us it just doesn't work that way. The great thing about bodybuilding is that you can get significant results without murdering yourself in the gym every time you go in.



Bodybuilding still requires extreme intensity and focus on every rep and in my opinion THIS is the real reason bodybuilding faded away. It's really f*cking hard to do 12 perfect repetitions with a challenging weight. Yea, sure, it's all well and good to talk about the neurological benefits of the 5 rep set and we can all appreciate the huge amount of science behind those assertions but at the same time we should all be able to admit that in a certain way, fewer reps are easier. They just are, especially to the type of people who are drawn to lifting in the first place.

Most of us gymheads are natural sprinters. We want to do something hard and fast for a little while then put it down and move on to something else. Obviously the 5 reps are of a significantly heavier weight, but when you're on your seventh rep and you've still got five to go with a weight thats challenging for those parameters you can start to understand what I'm saying. Lifting heavier for fewer reps is easier. Sprinting short distances is easier than cross country. Going balls to the wall is harder than having control. Physiologically and mathematically it may work out to a similar metabolic cost but sustaining a high level of effort over a longer time period is more difficult in terms of your mental fortitude. It's too god damn bad that we shy away from things that challenge our discipline.

There are a wealth of things about bodybuilding that aren't so great but the last ten years of the fitness industry has run over that horse with a steam roller. Movement trumps all and unfortunately improving movement quality isn't really the main focus of bodybuilding, but so what? Who says you can't do both? I would like to submit that bodybuilding is like running: an incredibly useful tool for a very specific task. You wouldn't use a hammer to drive a screw would you? And is the hammer "bad" simply because it's not the best tool for that specific job?


So do yourself a favor. Go pick up Ahnold's Total Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding and get reading. Then maybe you people will stop pointing at random body parts and asking me "what do I do for this?" (well..actually ma'am that's your pelvis so...)

Good luck and good lifting.

Cheers.



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