I remember back when I was getting my certificate to be a professional fitness coach. Just for fun we had to pick one exercise from a popular fitness magazine and implement it in our training. My friend and I picked an exercise for the biceps, where we had to do over 20 sets with a total of 200 repetitions. An inhumane high intensity. This exercise was recommended from a popular bodybuilder to get the best muscle growth for the biceps. We spent over 30 minutes doing that exhausting exercise. Our biceps were burning. I could barely move my arms for a week.
Monkey see, monkey do
If you’re ever planning to climb up Mount Everest, you would need to have a coach. In the months prior to your climb, you would scan the Internet for competent trainers. In a coach you would look out for:
- Ability to communicate and coach
- Matchability (Gut feeling)
- Prior experience (Preferably of climbing Mt. Everest)
We as humans like to get information from people that are walking the walk and leading by example. The origins of the ‘Train like a bodybuilder to look like one’ -myth are easy to find. As a beginner you go into a gym and instinctively ask the biggest person in there, how he’s able to build muscle. This is a big mistake.
The biggest person will give you, most likely, an unfortunate and only partially honest answer. The meathead will tell you his exact workout schedule. But the big elephants in the room will not be addressed: Experience, Knowledge Gap and most likely: Steroids.
Imagine you’re finding the ideal coach for your Mt. Everest climbing adventure. Yet the coach seemingly needs an extreme short recovery time and gets great results, with workouts containing an inhumane high intensity. You as a hobby climber might try to follow his advice, but the chances are high that the ridiculously high intensity schedule will catapult you into the hospital.
The Mt. Everest coach didn’t exactly lie to you, yet your baselines are simply on completely different levels.
Building your fundamentals
If you want to be the best tennis player in this world, would you immediately start training like Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal? No, you would focus the first few years on building up your fundamentals. This is the same thing that you have to do in the gym. Somehow people believe that the gym is the big exception from all the other physical activities. Yet you will need to have a foundation where you can build upon. Focus the first year on building up this foundation to be injury free. The results will be better and longer lasting.
Most people start lifting weights while completely neglecting the stability factor of your body, which is crucial in injury prevention. Your body needs to adapt to the stimulus that you put himself through. While the muscles are able to adapt fast, your bones and ligaments usually need way longer. Because the bones and ligaments are less supplied with blood, and therefore with oxygen and nutrients.
How to train instead?
I fell prey to the do-or-die mindset before. As a natural athlete, I followed a 5-day split training once. I trained every muscle group hard, but only one time per week. It was frustrating. I didn’t see the muscularity in the mirror that I did expect. Not only that, I also started experiencing wrist and shoulder injuries. I felt betrayed from the advice of the fitness models on Instagram. If you want to structure your training productively, there are three things that you need to consider:
1. Build a great foundation
At this very moment I’m not suffering from any injury. I’m reasonably flexible, my strength is on point and I’m able to run 10 kilometers without feeling the need to amputate my lower limbs. I took my time to build a great foundation, and so should you.
Implement a low-intensity endurance training in your workout schedule, on separate days from your strength workouts. Stretch after your full-body after your workouts or sign up for yoga classes.
2. Train with full body routines
On my strength training routine, I’m either following a full-body workout or a basic upper and lower body-split. This way I’m maximizing my muscle protein synthesis and therefore my muscle gain.
Bodybuilders have been training with full body routines for ages. It was not until steroids came into the scene, that split training truly became a thing. Steroids decrease your recovery time, increase your training intensity and your muscle protein synthesis.
3. Increase the level of difficulty gradually
Don’t fully exert yourself in the first year of your training. Your bones and ligaments need to adapt. From a scale on 1-10, your RPE (rate of perceived exertion) should never go to 9/10 during a workout set. When you stop the set, you should be able to always do 1-2 repetitions extra. If you fully exert yourself, you’re risking injuries.
Take home message
If you’re a bodybuilder and got angry at me for writing that article, note this: the saying ‘Train like a bodybuilder to look like one’ is correct, in some way. Bodybuilders are not stupid, if it wouldn’t work they wouldn’t do it.
Hard work and training. There’s no secret formula. I lift heavy, work hard and aim to be the best. – Ronnie Coleman, former world class bodybuilder
As a beginner though, you have a vastly different baseline than a bodybuilder. You will naturally lack experience, knowledge of the training and your own body – and will not consume steroids. You also most likely have different goals: a bodybuilder wants to be in world-class shape on stage, while you might be training to get in decent shape for your beach holidays.
I don’t eat for taste, I eat for funciton. – Jay Cutler
Stop spending 3 hours in the gym every day and don’t do 20 sets for your biceps if you don’t want to be a competitive athlete. Focus on building your fundamentals, structure your workout and train with a reasonable intensity.