25 Things We Can Learn From Bodybuilders

muscled guy curling heavy weight25 Things We Can Learn From Bodybuilders, Powerlifters, Athletes And The Average Joe To Build A Better Body Now  by: Jimmy Smith, CSCS

We have a problem in the fitness industry. Everything has to be black and white; there can’t be a gray area. Everyone wants to prescribe to a train of thought because there has to be one way to do things. That one way is usually the more comfortable method or the popular idea at the time. You see strength training is no different than high school, the popular kids do this and the geeks do that. Our close-minded thought process is the reason why frustration mounts every summer and we’re just not ready for the beach. Every training method offers something different and if we look closely enough, we’ll find that we can build a better body if we just steal and modify certain techniques.

From Bodybuilders

This is the culture that seems to steer people the wrong way most of the time so I’ll point out the good from them first. If you’re reading this, chances are that you are only interested in looking better and you are not alone. Naturally people will look to physique competitors to learn how to get leaner or bigger, hell it’s their job after all. The problem is that a bodybuilder’s only job is to train, nothing else. Without going too much into detail stress makes you fat and weak, they have less stress than you. Drugs are also a big issue, but if you don’t take them, you’re out of luck when you try to use their methods. Bodybuilding and build better bodies are two different and distinct ways of life, but we can learn a few precious things from them.

1. Bodypart training can be beneficial: Bodypart training has been getting slammed recently and it is well deserved. It just doesn’t make sense as to why we would rely on it for the majority of our training. We’ll get into the benefits of full body training later on, but we just aren’t doing enough workout often enough to get the results that we want. We don’t sleep, eat or go to bathroom once a week, so there is no reason to train once a week. However, when we need to full develop a specific muscle or want to subject our body to increased volume after a lower volume period, it can be our best friend. Growing is volume based; it means we need to fully strain a muscle in order to make it grow. Training everyday using body part splits isn’t going to do the trick, but using it for 4-6 weeks in a 12-16 week cycle can be beneficial.

2. Supplements can be great training aids but are no replacements for proper training and nutrition: You see this all the time, physique competitors advertising supplements. Maybe it’s an advertising issue, but we must use supplements because it takes us to the next level. Our issue is that we focus way too much on them to be magic makers instead of ‘supplements’. After all the word means “in addition to”, use them, but train and eat right and they will really be effective.

3. Focus on your diet to manipulate your body to look the way you want it to: Bodybuilders are the perfect example of this. While I hate the “bulk in the winter and cut in the spring” mentality, it just goes to show what nutrition can do for you. If you want to get lean, cycle carbs and if you want to grow, cycle carbs slightly differently. We don’t get the body results we want because we don’t approach nutrition as the key to our lean dreams. Taking drugs out of the equation, look how quickly a bodybuilder can transform their body. The recent work of my good friend Cassandra Forsythe at UCONN has showed that it is entirely possible to lose fat and build muscle at the same time while on a low carb diet. Focus on the carb cycling and adjust it as you see your body change. I’m not a big fan of aerobic work since I can get a client to low body fat levels with simple diet manipulations.

4. Spending time focusing on specific parts of the muscle is a waste of time: I know what you’re thinking; I just said that body part splits could be helpful. They can, but by that same breath to look good on the beach do we really need to focus on our long head of our triceps or vastus laterialis? Not really, focus on squatting, lunges, dipping and pressing and everything will fall into place. If we focus on specific areas of the muscle, we’re going to be fighting a losing battle and we’ll spend more time in the gym exhausting our adrenal glands even further. Body part splits are only going to be effective when done after successive weeks of total body training. The opposite is also true.

5. If we’re trying to go from lean to super lean, low intensity steady state cardio is probably our best bet: With the recent trend in the fitness industry to promote high intensity cardio, everyone in the ‘know’ has jumped on the bandwagon laughing at those people in the gym doing endless amounts of cardio. Yes I’m aware of EPOC and how it allows you to burn additional fat after the session by performing high intensity interval training. The problem is what if I am already at 10% body fat as a male or around 15% as a female? I have two options. First I can keep hammering away at high intensity cardio and lifting less weight when I train because I just can’t recover, all while I lose precious muscle mass and encourage stubborn body fat storage at the same time. On the other hand, I can go to more traditional steady state low intensity training and get at the stubborn body fat and keep my muscle. Now let me just say this, I hate agreeing with the know-it-alls who really don’t know anything, but I have to agree on this one.

From Powerlifters

If bodybuilding is too popular yet misunderstood, powerlifting is its complete opposite. No one picks up a powerlifting magazine because they want to look like the guy on the cover. If they do, it’s because they compete in the sport. Everyone can benefit from certain powerlifting principles. Maybe we don’t want to look like them, but I can apply these principles to a housewife and radically change her body.

6. We need to lift heavy things: Look around a typical gym, what do you see? A bunch of low intensity, high rep work. No one dares to lift something heavier than normal. I’m not going to change the world, but to lose fat we need to get stronger. It doesn’t have to be every exercise, just pick your first exercise and do it heavy. Heavy is relative, if you’ve never trained under 10 reps, then 6 is going to be heavy. Whatever it is, just do it heavier.


7. Use explosive movements: Not everything done by powerlifters is heavy all the time. If you’re not familiar with the sport, they will have a day where they lift a lighter load faster. Explosive concentrics will result in higher threshold motor unit recruitment and will teach us how to move heavier loads faster when we return to our ‘normal’ training. The end result – a better body!

8. The quickest way to build a sexier back is through heavy pulling: Granted for most people back training is a second thought. Even if it isn’t, it is usually kept to pulldowns and light rowing. Deadlifting isn’t common, but deadlifting heavier is even less common. Without heavy pulling, we’re going to be left a model back, thin and not there. Heavy pulling exercises such as deadlifts, high pulls, and cleans recruit a large amount of muscle mass, but the main advantage is the fact that these movements are multi-joint. With the help of our hips, we can pull exponentially more weight than we can on a row or pulldown.

9. Go hard, harder then back off: Powerlifters have seemed to master this while the rest of the world still scratches their heads. We simply cannot keep pounding away at our body workout after workout and expect it to grow. We must slightly raise our volume then lower it. Exercise is a stress; repetitive exercise is a chronic stress. Pushing for more reps or more sets just begins a negative feedback loop that eats muscles and welcomes fat.

10. Our body works better with upper/lower or full body splits: Very much like the previous point, we’ve got to do our part to handle stress. That involves limiting our training to four days a week. Going five days on or three days in a row will not allow us to recover while we will also induce further fatigue, which will bring us closer to adrenal burnout.

11. We shouldn’t train to failure on every set: If you ask anyone how they judge the success of a set it usually is with “ I couldn’t do anymore reps”. This is a product of the bodybuilding myths that still exist today. Everyone goes to concentric failure, which is rarely smart for long-term results and progress. Take a look at powerlifters; they typically leave a rep or two in the ‘bucket’. Training to failure is part of that negative feedback loop that I talked about earlier.

12. Our intensity needs to be higher than it normally is: If you watch a powerlifter and anyone else train side-by-side, you’ll notice a few things. The powerlifter will weigh more and will be using more weight. What isn’t so noticeable is that a powerlifter is a lot more intense during his set than the other person is. A bodybuilder knows on the sixth rep that he has four or six more reps to go, why should he be intense? A powerlifter on the other hand knows how to be tense; he only has a few reps to get the job done. Tension is a key to muscle growth so we must have this through both high weight and high rep work on separate occasions.

13. Pay attention to how you feel every time you enter he gym: Powerlifters (athletes also to a certain extent) seem to be the only ones who actually pay attention to how they are feeling on training days. Granted, Monday may be chest day or upper body day, but if you have been up all night before and had a hard day at work and go to the gym feeling sluggish, should you really train? Maybe you really only want to deadlift and don’t want to do anything else. So deadlift more then go home. You are doing yourself a favor by listening to your body and not pushing it when it doesn’t want to. Our adrenals glands are telling us something that we should listen to. It amazes me how many times people tell me they “have to workout six days a week”. Like your training is really the thing keeping you skinny?

From Athletes

Athletes are an interesting bunch; everyone thinks they have some secret to how they achieve fantastic body composition. Well they do, they are genetically better, but since we can’t pick our parents we don’t have a choice. When I was first starting in this industry I looked at ‘strength coaches’ like Gods. They worked with athletes; they knew secrets that we didn’t. In reality, that isn’t really true, but there are some things we can learn by looking at how athletes train.

14. Our body works better in full body or upper/lower splits: If we’re training to lose fat and build muscle, doesn’t it make sense that we would focus on workouts that burn more energy or what about decreasing overall stress? We can ignore those facts, but our body doesn’t work in isolation. Focus on involving as many muscles as possible and the fat flies off.

15. We should train our lower body more frequently and everything will grow faster: Everyone runs around saying, “You release more testosterone when you train legs.” Has anyone ever questioned this? No, but when you look at it, you see that we likely create a higher anabolic response because we are involving such a high number of muscle. The best way to change a body is to increase someone’s deadlift. Provided your nutrition is there, you’ll notice everything is bigger and leaner.

16. Tapering our training is always necessary: Simply put we need to deload our training every 3rd or 4th week. In recent weeks, I’ve even tapered the training of my clients every few sessions; I’ve seen increased drive, better recovery and heavier loads. We’ve also got to remember that exercise is stress; we need to treat it like that.

17. To add the most muscle and burn the most fat we should probably train multiple strength qualities in one session: Most people only know the one type of training that they always do, hypertrophy. The fact exists that it is only one type of training, if we want to change our body the quickest, our best bet is to focus on other methods each session like reactive, relative and endurance strength.

18. If we’re trying to lose weight or go from chunky to lean, high intensity intervals are probably our best bet: I know I said the complete opposite earlier, but everything applies to the individual. There’s a reason that the majority of people in the gym don’t look like they train, it’s because they have no idea what they are doing. Everyone wants to lose weight so why are they doing steady state low intensity cardio? Excessive post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) dictates that we burn more fat after activity by doing high intensity interval training then we do during low intensity steady state cardio. In the initial stages this also helps us to hold onto as much muscle mass as possible, which we know we need to build the body we want. This is also an excellent method to decrease water weight, so for women who say that they feel ‘fat’ do some high intensity interval work for 20 minutes and be quiet.


19. We can set ourselves up to be very lean by simply deadlifting: Traditional deadlifts are hands down, in my opinion the best exercise for anyone who is looking to build a better body. The problem exists that people don’t know how to do them so they are misguided when they experience lower back pain (hint: tilt your pelvis back at the top and squeeze your glutes) or they are misguided because so and so told them that they are a best exercise. We need to differentiate between traditional deadlifts and the stiff legged version. Men don’t do traditional deadlifts or stiff legged deadlifts and women love stiff legged deadlifts. Stiff legged deadlifts are a completely different exercise than deadlifts. See a barbell, put it on the floor, sit down like you are going to the bathroom and pick it up, and then repeat. Improving everything on the backside can make the front side look damn good.

20. Focusing on our glutes should be a priority even if it is only a warm-up priority: It seems like athletes are the only ones that perform any type of movement prep/activation/warm-up work. Warming up with the bar for a few sets then getting right into it doesn’t cut it. Combine that with the fact that we live in a glute dormant society that manifests itself in low back and hip pain, as well as good ole saggy butt syndrome and we see the need to begin our session with glute bridges, hip hikes and glute med clams.

From the Average Joe

I train all day, go to school and write and read at night. You think I’d learn a lot from those places right? What I learn there is nothing compared to what I learn from training at a commercial gym. For as many “that guy is an idiot” moments that I have, I have equal or double “that guy just taught me something” moments. The best way to learn is by doing things incorrectly, this abounds in commercial gyms.

21. Do the exercises you hate first and the ones you love last: If you go to a gym at the same time on the same day every week, you’ll notice that most people do the same thing. If you ask them why they do the exercises, you’ll typically get a shoulder shrug. Chances are that they just like the exercises, how else do you explain the lack of full squats, chin-ups and deadlifts? The last exercises are usually the least thought out and least liked. Want to grow, do something you hate first.

22. We need to have short-term goals: The biggest problem for average Joes is that they just don’t plan their training. Sure they know that Monday is Chest day and they plan the rest of their week like that. No one looks at where they want to be four weeks from now. I’d love to see everyone have a plan for the next 12 weeks, but it is unrealistic for today’s Joe. If you want a simple trick to get gains right away, just plan your training (exercises, sets, reps, tempo, techniques and rest) out for the next four weeks. The reason people rave about the results they get from programs in books or magazines is because they are following a program with an end goal in mind for the first time.

23. We should use full body splits: Point number one was, “Body part training can be useful” and I fully believe it can be. The issue is that 99% of the people don’t need to do them. People have kids, are married or in relationships, have jobs and daily demands. Most people only have about 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes to get in and get the job done. Body part splits just aren’t good for 99% of the people 99% of the time. If you ask anyone why they train chest and back on one day, they’ll most likely look at you like you have three heads. Why not? Bodybuilders do it. I’ve trained physique competitors and they use full body splits the majority of the time. It is only when they get closer to their competition that they break their training up into specific days. The simple fact is that we get acute hormonal responses every time we train. As an example, let’s say that doing a chest and back day raised your hormonal response by two. After all we just focused on chest and back. Now let’s use a full body workout where we train our chest, back, arms, quads, hamstrings, glutes, shoulders, calves and forearms in each workout. That’s 9 specific reasons so it will raise our hormonal response by 9. Now imagine we did it four to five times a week. Hormonal response is what dictates how much fat we add and how much muscle we build.

24. The people who look like they train are the ones who usually don’t do a damn thing right: This is pretty much a time-honored tradition; the people that look the best usually train the worst. I know more than a few people who look good, but when you look at their training they are complete idiots. The key here is to learn from everyone, I don’t expect everyone to read about training all the time, but I do expect everyone to not blindly follow the direction of these people. I knew a trainer who looked the part and everyone wanted to work out with him, the problem is the guy didn’t do a damn thing right. So now we have two people looking like jackasses.

25. The majority of people are in the gym to meet people first and train second: We all want our bodies to look a certain way, that’s why we go to the gym. The problem is training comes after we look around before our set, flirt between sets and stare across the gym between exercises. So the next time the guy who’s only in the gym to stare at women when they walk in and hit on them as they do their sets tells me, “Yea, I just stopped lifting weights and did a lot of cardio to lose weight for the beach”, I may just throw up. Go in, train hard and get results.

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