Lift & Learn II: The Benefits of Bodybuilding

TAGS: bodybuilding, personal training, muscle, strength, strength training, strength coach, barbell, training

When I look back at my experiences as a bodybuilder there are plenty of good memories, tons of fun workouts, painful workouts and some injuries. But what sport or physical endeavor is injury free? In my eyes, the glass is always half full, not half empty. I knew that part one of this article would stir up some emotions and now part two may get you to rethink some methods used in bodybuilding, especially the repeated effort method (RE) which has helped myself and countless others improve their performance in their specific sport or endeavor (especially when incorporated with ME and DE methods).

When I finally stopped bodybuilding style training (and ended body part splits), I also minimized the use of the repetition method in my workouts. I wasn’t too knowledgeable back then and I made the decision without a rational reason. I thought that bodybuilding (and that style of training) caused my injuries and I had to cease all my methods that had anything to do with “bodybuilding.” I felt I was the “all show, no go” athlete and that pissed me off. I decided that using the ME and DE method was the only way to train as an athlete. This was a mistake for two reasons:

  1. I lost muscle
  2. I lost strength

Looking back at my progress as a bodybuilder (in the weight room specifically), I was pretty damn strong as a bodybuilder. As time passed, I noticed how I specifically lost strength in the three main lifts (squat, bench and deadlift). This didn’t bother me too much as I wanted to truly test my progress through my preferred athletic endeavors, specifically wrestling and grappling. Unfortunately, rehabbing my ACL reconstruction took quite a long time before I could step on the mat again.

A few reasons may attribute to my loss of strength in the gym. My new workouts began to look like this:

  1. Less volume per muscle group in a particular work out. I was doing full body workouts now, which meant one exercise per movement: one for upper body extension, one for upper body flexion, etc.
  2. Less volume = less assistance / supplemental training for muscle groups, the focus became training movements, not specific muscles.
  3. Lots of bodyweight training and less heavy barbell work.  Injuries have changed my training style and the volume of training that I could handle without pain. The high volume while bodybuilding for each muscle / movement led to regular overuse injuries.

* You will see as the article continues that after this initial change, my current program has changed and is now reaping better results than ever before.

The bodybuilding days: To keep the analysis simple, let’s take a look at some upper body training back in the day. For my back, I used to do strict bent over barbell rows using 315 – 335 lbs for 5 – 6 reps. Currently, my max set with 5 – 6 reps is using 275 – 285 lbs in the bent over row. The volume I did for my back (pulling muscles) was pretty high as a bodybuilder. Compared to now, it was probably 3 – 4 times greater back in my bodybuilding days.

A typical back work out as a bodybuilder included the following:

  1. Bent over rowing motion (dumbbell or barbell rows) - 4 – 5 sets x 5 – 8 reps
  2. Horizontal rowing motion (seated cable row or Hammer Row) - 3 – 4 sets x 6 – 10 reps
  3. Vertical pulling (weighted chins or heavy pull down variations) - 3 – 4 sets x 6 – 8 reps weighted, 12 – 20 reps for non weighted pull ups or high rep pull downs
  4. Some form of deadlift (RDL’s with bar or dumbbells, deadlifts off floor, or rack pulls from mid shin or knee level) - 3 – 4 sets 3 – 8 reps

The mixture of heavy, moderate and light weights that I used is similar to using ME training, SE training and RE training all mixed together. Back then I didn’t know anything about these terms though, I knew heavy or light, that’s all. This is similar to doing heavy training with plenty of assistance work.

This method was typical for chest training as well. And although my bench always sucked, it is much less now than it was when I was bodybuilding. This analysis is key for those who need to have a good bench (powerlifters, football players prepping for a combine, etc.). We always started chest with a “core” lift and kept going heavier until we cranked out 2 – 4 hard sets in the 2 – 5 rep range. This lift would have been flat or incline barbell or dumbbell presses. After the first exercise, we hit another heavy movement, but often using the SE method. We started with one medium warm up set since it was a new angle, and just did 8 – 10 easy reps, leaving plenty in the tank for the heavy sets. Here we would do a few hard sets in the 6 – 10 range. The final exercise was often lighter and done with higher reps, hence the RE method kicked in here. All sets were done to failure and often included a forced rep or two at the end. Why? Because FLEX magazine said so damn it! We also did drop sets and all the other stuff that “burns’ the muscles.

Here is a sample chest work out:

  1. Flat barbell bench:  I would pyramid up in weight until hitting 2 – 4 hard sets of low reps, usually 2 – 5 reps. Last set perform a strip set (NO, this is not what Wendler does for his training partners when they hit a new PR). If we did a final set at 315 for 3 reps, we dropped the weight to 225 and performed max reps, then racked the weight and stripped it down to 135 for a final set of max reps.
  2. Incline dumbbell presses: start with a medium set for 8 – 10 reps, then hit 3 or 4 hard sets in the 6 – 10 range. Once again, we pressed until our partner had to help us complete an extra rep. So we basically went to muscular fatigue and beyond on almost every set.
  3. Incline dumbbell fly: 2 or 3 hard sets in the 8 – 15 range, often supersetted with parallel bar dips for max reps using bodyweight
  4. Cable or machine fly: 2 – 3 sets of reps in the 12 – 20 range, last set often being a strip set.

The forced reps, the drop sets, and the high volume: all of these things coupled together served as a great recipe for plenty of muscle and joint soreness as well as beating up the shoulder joints. Looking back, I would have avoided all the forced reps and other intensity methods. These methods left me sore all the time, for years on end.

Certainly there were days of machine usage, but the gym we trained at emphasized heavy basics, nothing fancy. So when the machines were used, they were always abused and loaded with max weights, often adding more weight onto the machine one way or another. Heavy basics rules: It wasn’t odd to see guys benching 405 for reps on the flat bench, incline pressing 315 for reps, dumbbell benching 140’s and more for reps as well. It was pretty damn old school in there, people would still squat bare foot the same way Arnold did in the 70’s. Rack pulls were done regularly in this gym, there was no curling in the power rack that’s for sure!

Take a look at DeFranco’s WS4SB program. Joe incorporates the RE method in there with all his athletes, even the pros. Looking at his sample templates gave me a reminder of the importance of using the RE method to improve my progress in and out of the gym. Looking at some of the extra workouts on the Westside videos shows many athletes and powerlifters performing RE training. Speaking with James Smith he has also stated the importance of using the RE method with younger athletes.

Why incorporate these “bodybuilding” type methods you ask? In simple terms we can use a car analogy: If we increase the size of the engine the more potential we have to make the engine more powerful with greater horsepower. The RE method is great for hypertrophy when using SE or light weights for moderate to high reps.

The reason why I felt bodybuilding methods did not work is because I never used the DE method. I moved weights under control all the time. Sure, some people become more powerful using little DE training. Their DE work comes from the actual sport itself. Everyone is different so training methods work differently for everyone.  That is the art of coaching yourself and / or others. I know that I needed more explosive work because I see how it has helped my performance now on the mat. In addition, all the strongman and odd object lifting I do have had tremendous carry over to my wrestling and grappling.

What else do I avoid? Exercises that are done lying down or seated are avoided as often as possible. Sure I still do heavy presses on the floor or bench, but you won’t find me doing military presses seated. I’ll always take heavy barbell or dumbbell rows over a chest supported row.

So how else can the RE improve your performance and lifts? I recall my squat going up regularly when we did walking dumbbell lunges around the gym. These ended up being high rep sets with over 20 reps per leg. This style of training was also extremely painful and hard training was all I knew back then. It had little to do with smart training because this is all we knew! Our glutes and hams got strong as hell from these.

So how do I use these mistakes to improve myself and my own athletes? Most important is my athletes. They are high school athletes who play football or wrestle, and sometimes both. The wrestlers who are very concerned with staying in the same or near same weight class we do little RE training. If they need to gain muscle, we use SE weights for moderate reps and higher volume which has worked quite well.

For the football players who need the size to improve performance we use the RE method at the end of the week by using the moderate to light weights for reps in the range of 10 – 20 (sometimes more for bodyweight movements). This is similar to DeFranco’s WS4SB template of including a rep day for upper body at the end of the week.

A normal template for the high school athlete is a three day training week with three full body workouts on nonconsecutive days. On their “off” days they may train at the high school gym for short durations performing abdominal training, bodyweight calisthenics, band work and sled training.

We focus on SE weights with the young athletes for the most part and sometimes finish a workout with higher reps using bands (rowing movements, GM’s, triceps work, etc.) or high reps performing various lunges, push ups, decline rows, etc.

Friday is usually their “rep” day. Below is a sample workout on rep day:

Warm up (this is done twice)

  • Band face pulls x 20
  • Various lunges and mobility walks for hips (referenced from ‘Magnificent Mobility” DVD, Cressey & Robertson, 06’) x 10 per leg
  • Push up variations x 15
  • Abdominal exercise x 15 – 20

Workout

  • Trap Bar DL - 4 x 8 - 12 reps
  • Thick bar bench - 3 x 8 – 15 reps
  • 1 arm rows using kettlebell or dumbbell - 3 x 10 – 15 reps
  • Sandbag or keg shouldering  - 3 x 6 – 8 reps per shoulder
  • 2 hand kettlebell swings - 3 x 10 – 20 reps
  • Finish with a light circuit for arms and upper back, 3 sets of each

1.      Barbell curls 3 x 10 – 12 reps

2.      Band extensions 3 x 15 – 25 reps

3.      Band pull aparts 3 x 15 – 40 reps

Through experience I have found that since we began incorporating the RE method either during a workout or at the end of a training week the athlete makes gains in the weight room and improves performance in sport simply through the added muscle.

In the end, these conclusions were not made just because I saw someone performing high reps on a Westside video or because another coach said so. It’s a combination of everything:

  • Discussions with other highly qualified coaches
  • Self experimentation
  • Feedback (verbal and non verbal) from athletes
  • Improved athletic performance for clients
  • Personal mistakes

As Joe DeFranco says, “The gym is our lab”. Sometimes what is said to be true on paper due to scientific study may not always be the case in actual hands on training. Everyone is different and so this article may not mean a thing to you. You may respond best to heavy single and doubles with very little RE training. You never know until you try though!

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