SHOULD I BE DOING BODYBUILDING EXERCISES?
Strength is an essential part of military life. Equipment is heavy and the stronger you are, the easier it’ll be for you to lift and shift that equipment into the right position. Strength also means that many daily activities will be much less tiring. You’ll have plenty of muscle power in reserve – even after a hard day digging trenches. Strength is a very desirable trait.
Of course, strength without fitness is all-but useless. No one will care if you can bench press a tank if you have to lie down for half-an-hour to catch your breath afterward!
What is the best way to build strength? You have lots of options. Bodyweight exercises are a good choice, or you could use a suspension trainer, resistance bands, kettlebells, or traditional barbells and dumbbells. It really doesn’t matter – so long as whatever you do puts your muscles under sufficient stress, you will get stronger.
But, what about bodybuilding? Are bigger muscles necessarily stronger muscles? Things aren’t that simple.
Muscle size versus muscle strength
While big bodybuilder-type muscles are a lot stronger than average and have the potential to be very strong, appearances can be misleading. Bodybuilding training is designed to do one thing and one thing only – trigger a process called hypertrophy. This means to increase the cross-sectional size of the muscles. Any increases in performance are entirely coincidental.
You CAN increase muscle size with heavy bodybuilding exercises, but you can build muscles with moderate and even light weights too. Heavy weights build strength, but lighter weights do not.
How can a big muscle also be a weak muscle? The answer lies in something called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. In straightforward terms, bodybuilding training with light to moderate weights, using moderate to high reps, and with short rests between sets make your muscle bigger without affecting the size of the muscle fibers.
Instead, it produces an increase in sarcoplasmic fluid in and around the muscles. In short, they are “pumped up.” For this reason, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is also known as non-contractile or non-functional hypertrophy. It's all show and no go.
In contrast, lifting heavy weights for low reps triggers myofibril hypertrophy. This means the muscle fibers get thicker and stronger. This gives you size AND strength. This might seem appealing, but there is a disadvantage to all forms of hypertrophy; your bodyweight increases.
More bodyweight, even if it’s muscle, means you need more calories to sustain your energy levels, and it’s a whole of extra weight to carry when you run, climb ropes, or drag your weary body through yet another night navigation exercise.
Small, strong muscles
The good news it is possible to be small and strong. Look at weightlifters; they are not the biggest guys in the gym but are usually much stronger than the considerably bigger bodybuilders. They are also more explosive and athletic.
Weightlifters use lots of special techniques to build muscle with minimal muscle gain including very low reps (3-5 being typical), long breaks between sets, rarely lower their weights and drop them instead, and make sure they avoid consuming more calories than they need. Weightlifters seldom follow "bulking" diets.
So, bodybuilding sucks, right?
Before you resign your membership at Biceps-Are-Us gym, it’s important to understand that you don’t have to quit bodybuilding, but you do need to balance it with workouts designed to boost strength and performance. If you do this, hypertrophy will happen naturally, and it will be muscle mass that has a purpose.
To do this, build your workouts around 1-3 key strength exercises, and round out your workout with some hypertrophy-specific exercises for fun and variety.
Take this leg workout for example:
1) Barbell back squats – 4 sets of 4 reps, three minutes rest between sets (very heavy)
2) Romanian deadlifts – 3 sets of 6 reps, two minutes rest between sets (moderately heavy)
3) Bulgarian split squats – 2 sets of 10 reps, one minute between sets (moderate/light)
4) Leg extensions & leg curls (superset) – 2 sets of 12 reps, one minute between sets (light)
5) Box jumps – 3 sets of 10 reps performed explosively, 90 seconds between sets (very light)
This kind of approach will develop functional strength (exercises one and two) and also increase muscle size (exercises three and four). The final exercise, box jumps, will increase leg power and athleticism – essential for better running and jumping performance.
Bodybuilding is not inherently evil or, worse still, non-functional, but it would be a mistake to do it exclusively. Instead, combine strength and power training with a few bodybuilding exercises to create fun, varied workouts that improve function AND performance.