Bodybuilding: the perils of getting bigger

Bodybuilding is great only when it’s done in the right way.

Becoming bigger is great only if it’s the right kind of “bigger.”

The gym’s two “old timers” have trained together for nearly ten years—they’re an institution there. At 49 and 53 they are amongst the gym’s oldest bodybuilders, although they are still youthful in mind and body. Peter and Reid train harder than almost all of the guys there in their twenties, and are far stronger and better developed than nearly everyone in the gym. And they’ve never taken bodybuilding drugs.

They’ve almost always kept their bodybuilding routines short, and focused on the big, basic exercises. As far as building muscle goes, their training has worked a treat. Here are the commandments they’ve followed in order to build muscle mass and gain weight:

1. Train safely, and never apply the “No pain, no gain” maxim.
2. Use correct exercise technique at all times.
3. Use a smooth, controlled rep speed.
4. Weight train no more than three times a week.
5. Focus mostly on compound exercises.
6. Don’t skimp on warm-up sets.
7. Do no more than 20 work sets per workout.
8. Train hard.
9. Eat, rest, and sleep well, to recuperate properly between workouts.
10. Build strength for sets of at least five reps—train progressively, and use small poundage increments.

I’d just started warming up on a treadmill when Peter and Reid noticed me just as they were about to leave the gym after finishing a workout. They came over to have a word—we often chat. After exchanging pleasantries, Peter, the younger of the two, asked me how he could add 15 pounds to his bench press, to take him to 320 pounds for sets of five reps so that he could match Reid.

“But what about the cardio we’ve discussed many times?” I asked. “What about the six pack you keep telling me you want? And what about making the changes to your diet that we’ve discussed many times? Those things are way more important than adding 15 pounds to your bench press.”

“I’ll get to those things later on, Stuart. Just tell me what to do so that I can get to the 320 for fives.”

Peter’s 49 and yet he’s still procrastinating getting a six pack, still procrastinating fixing his diet, and still procrastinating doing decent cardio. And it’s the same story with Reid and many other forty-plus bodybuilders.

When you’re in your twenties you have the time to procrastinate, but when you’re in your forties and fifties and you’re still procrastinating, you’re at risk of never getting around to a six pack, excellent diet, and decent cardio.

Even if Peter gets to 320 for fives in his bench press—up from the 305 for fives he’s at now—it won’t make any difference of note to his physique. But if he trims his bodyfat to 10%, that will transform his appearance. Although he may lose a little on his bench press, so what? He would finally be able to see his substantial muscle mass, and have a sharp six pack. And at 49 that would blow most people away.

If you’ve trained seriously and well for over ten years, chances are you’ve reached the maximum muscle size you’re ever going to have naturally, or somewhere close to it. Many bodybuilders carry excess bodyfat under the assumption that it’s necessary so that they can keep building size. There’s something to that view—you’re not going to build bigger muscles if you keep yourself ripped—but don’t carry excess bodyfat for long.

Many bodybuilders get stuck on a size trip, forever wanting just a bit more size, and then just a bit more still. But no matter how much size they get, they always want a bit more.

Peter and Reid are still following pretty much the heavy nutritional intake they used in their early years of bodybuilding. But that approach has been putting a couple of pounds of fat on them each year over most of the time they’ve been working out together, and the pounds have added up. They’ve got bigger all right, but not bigger in the way that they really want.

Most bodybuilders would look much better if they trimmed 10 pounds of fat while holding their current muscle mass, for example, than they would if they added 10 pounds of muscle while holding their current bodyfat mass.

Peter and Reid each need to lose over 20 pounds of bodyfat in order to get terrific six packs.

Bodybuilding’s six pack challenge

Unless you already have a terrific six pack, how about setting the following goals?

1. “I’ll reduce my caloric intake sufficiently so that I lose one pound a week until I can see a distinct six pack.”

2. “I’ll do serious cardio work twice a week for the rest of my life and maintain very serious weights workouts.”

3. “I’ll eliminate all rubbish from my diet and eat healthily for the rest of my life.”

Achieve those goals and not only will you make a big improvement in your physique, you’ll also make a big improvement in the supreme priority—your health—and stay youthful as you age.