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fit guy arms over headby: Xander Jones
No Time to be a Competitive Bodybuilder?

There’s that guy again in your gym–you know, the one you see just about every time you’re there. You somehow make it to the gym three or four times per week and you see this guy almost every time. Sure, it seems to have paid off – he’s big, he’s ripped, and he competes and sometimes wins bodybuilding competitions. He’s got his picture on the gym wall. You think to yourself “It would be nice to have so much time on my hands that I could get myself into that condition and compete someday.” But then you think that there’s just no way you have the time it takes to do it.

Well, I’ve got some news for you. That gym rat you see every day is probably a nutcase with no life. But, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have the time to get a great physique. This might actually be bad news. Why? Because I intend to make a very strong argument based on science and real-world experience that you do indeed have the time to be a competitive bodybuilder. No more excuses for you working folk. So don’t read on if you don’t want your bubble burst.

First of all, let me be clear on what I’m talking about. I’m talking about non-pharmaceutically-enhanced bodybuilding. The rules of physiology get bent all over the place with drugs. Plus, I have very limited knowledge and no experience in this area. I am a lifetime natural bodybuilder. I do use supplements, but that’s not the focus of this article – maybe a future one. I’m not making any judgements regarding those who choose to use anabolic drugs. I’m just much more interested in what I can do without them.

So, let’s get down to the heart of the matter. In order to compete (or just to look great at the beach) you need:

    • Good muscular development
    • Low bodyfat

Simple. Or is it? Well it’s certainly not complicated, that’s for sure. However to say it’s easy certainly does not follow; simple and easy are not the same thing at all. However, it is my opinion that there are perceived barriers in the path to achieving what most would call the “extreme” levels of muscularity and low bodyfat levels. These perceived barriers are due more to a complicated mix of misinformation, lack of information, dogma, myth and personal/psychological/mental factors than the true difficulty of the task at hand.

First of all, the levels of muscularity you see at natural bodybuilding competitions are not as extreme as you might think. I have competed at a few large competitions, some having 70 or more male competitors at the national (Canada) and international level. Very few competitors weigh in over 200 lbs. By far, the largest group of competitors fall into the 154 to 176 lb divisions (welterweight/middleweight). Numbers drop off at the light-heavyweight (up to198 lbs) and hardly any compete (two or three max) in the heavyweight division, even at the biggest events. Often, there are no heavyweights at smaller events. Most of these heavyweights are overweight by bodybuilding standards and should be in a lighter category anyway. I can think of only three or four natural “quality” heavyweights that I have seen over the last few years, and who knows how many of these competitors bend the rules of what “natural” is supposed to mean.

The point is you do not have to be HYOOOOOGE to be competitive at natural bodybuilding. I won the tall division and overall title at a regional event this past April at a contest weight of just above 190 lbs. I was the heaviest guy in the competition. If you’re not familiar with natural bodybuilding, you might be surprised to learn how small (by the drug-inflated IFBB Pro standards at least) we really are. Of course, leanness is a key ingredient if you want to be competitive. But enormous size is not. I have seen lightweights win overall titles at these competitions. Remember though, that contests weights are a little deceptive. Personally, my off-season weight peaked at about 230lbs. However, many natural bodybuilders are much lighter.

So, if you didn’t know before, hopefully now you understand that natural competitors are not as extreme as you might have assumed, and that you actually might be a lot closer to competition readiness than you think.

So now we know that size-wise, natural bodybuilders really are not all that large. But what about the time requirement? Nearing a competition when I get leaner and leaner, I seem to get more questions/comments from people along this line. How long are your workouts? Are you in here twice a day? How do you get your abs like that? And so on… When I tell them the truth – 45 to 60 minutes, four times per week maximum, and that I actually do very little direct ab training, I tend to get blank stares.

What happens, I think, is that there are always a few people who, for whatever reason, seem to work out endlessly. They’re in the gym everyday for hours on end. Since this type of person is also likely to compete, most others assume that this is what it takes. Well in natural bodybuilding at least, this approach is not necessary and most likely counterproductive.

I competed a few weekends ago (Aug 28th 2004). I was talking to a fellow competitor backstage who was competing in another category. He said the same thing: that people didn’t believe him when he told them his workout duration and frequency (similar to mine). This was a national-level event, and it ended up that we both got second place in our divisions. I digress a bit here, but for what it’s worth, this guy should have won the overall title. For me, I made a last minute decision to enter and really wasn’t in top form either (couple pounds heavy). I was good enough for second though.

My brother is another example. He has won a national title (and a few regional ones), and yet he only goes to the gym during his lunch hour. He never goes to the gym on the weekends, and he never goes for more than 50 minutes per session. So clearly we have a few examples here, but this should not be enough to convince you. What does the science have to say about this?

There are a couple of papers I have read on this topic that I found particularly interesting. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) published a “Position Stand on Progression Models for Resistance Training in Healthy Adults” in 2002. They cited a total of 264 sources as the basis for their conclusions and recommendations. Here’s an excerpt from the Conclusions section of the ACSM document:

It [The Resistance Training Program] requires the prioritization of training systems to be used during a specific training cycle to achieve desired results. Resistance training progression should be an “individualized” process of exercise prescription using the appropriate equipment, program design, and exercise techniques needed for the safe and effective implementation of a program. Trained and competent strength and conditioning specialists should be involved with this process in order to optimize the safety and design of a training program. Whereas examples and guidelines can be presented, ultimately the good judgment, experience, and educational training of the exercise professionals involved with this process will dictate the amount of training success.

So to summarize, the ACSM basically says that you need an individualized program (probably not a simple one) and the guidance of a knowledgeable coach to be successful. For a more advanced trainee seeking muscular growth, they recommend a high volume (3-6 sets per exercise), high frequency (up to 6 sessions per week) and periodized approach. Anecdotally at least, this doesn’t seem to fit with reality though. What gives?

Well, the American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP) published a paper of their own in June 2004 titled “A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE ACSM POSITION STAND ON RESISTANCE TRAINING: INSUFFICENT EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT RECOMMENDED TRAINING PROTOCOLS” – capital letters and all. Needless to say, they didn’t have many nice things to share about the ACSM’s stand. They examined the same sources as the ACSM and concluded that the ACSM’s interpretation and subsequent guidelines are completely unfounded. And that’s putting it mildly. Here’s a quote from the ASEP article:

Contrary to the ACSM’s claim that Position’s Stands are based on solid research and scientific data (3), we specifically demonstrate how the Position Stand based its claims and recommendations on selective reporting or misinterpretation of studies, and that the Position Stand represents merely the unsubstantiated opinions of its authors and the ACSM.

Ouch! ASEP authors claim that the ACSM’s position is ah…well…not good! What do they base this rather harsh appraisal on? The same studies cited by the ACSM! This is interesting stuff here. Nerd wars! Muscle nerd wars, even better!

The physiologists use the same data either to contradict or expose as unsubstantiated, more or less each and every of the ACSM’s recommendations or conclusions. As you can probably imagine, there’s enough ammo here for about a hundred articles. I think I’ll probably continue to write a few more if there is interest. But the first issue I wanted to address was simply the common perception that the average busy man/woman does not have the time to become a competitive natural bodybuilder (or look like one). Perhaps other barriers exist, as I’ll touch on in future articles, but lack of time in my opinion is almost always not a barrier.

As you can probably tell, I tend to agree with the physiologists here. Prove to me that 6 sets are superior to one or two. Prove to me that periodization creates superior results (ASEP sees no evidence, but I’m having trouble swallowing this one). But even if periodization is a good idea (I am going to try it on my next cycle and have done it in the past), the time commitment need not be greater anyway so this doesn’t influence my main point. I have a busy life outside of the gym and I want…no…I demand to maximize my efficiency in the gym. I want maximum benefit for the least time. Notice I did not say least effort, just least time – big difference here.

Hopefully in other articles I’ll go through my training philosophy and how this philosophy translates into action and attitudes in the gym. I hope for now I have accomplished what I set out to do: convince you, the working-family-stressed-busy-no-time-commuter-rat-race-person that you do in fact have the time to take your body to practically any level of muscular development that you desire (within your genetic limits). How’s that for a heavy statement? Well the ASEP seems to agree as well. Here’s a quote or two from their recommendations section.

Perform one set of each exercise.

No, not the one set vs. multi-set argument again!! Well, I usually do more than one set I admit, but I’ve got more to say on this later. In future articles, I’ll elaborate on how multiple set (but not endless set) approaches can yield incredible results. You’re busy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t capitalize on your gym time. More on this later. For now: Depending on individual recovery and response, choose a frequency of 2-3 times/week to stimulate each targeted muscle group. One session a week has been shown to be just as effective as 2-3 times/week for some muscle groups.

Now where’s your excuse, eh? (Sorry for the ‘eh’ – it’s a Canadian thing.) Time to plan your first competition yet? C’mon, I dare you….

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