In America, we confuse bodybuilding (lifting for bigger muscles) with strength training in general. From the 50s on, from its Mecca on Venice Beach, bodybuilding loomed biggest in the public eye, thanks to its proximity to Hollywood and the new muscle mags aimed at boys and young men across America. So naturally Americans inherited most of our ideas about how to do strength training from professional bodybuilders. For example, if you’ve ever done 3 sets of 10 or 5 sets of 5 with one or two minutes’ rest three times a week, then you’ve done classic bodybuilding routines.
In the popular American mind, bodybuilding is almost the only paradigm people know for strength training. Bodybuilding even shaped American powerlifting, a pure strength event where lifters compete for the highest one-rep max, not for the nicest shape. In the 1970s and 80s, the sport’s golden age, powerlifters trained and looked a lot like plump, off-season bodybuilders, and even today most American powerlifting follows a version of the “Westside” method, which retains a strong bodybuilding influence.
Arguably, we’re still beholden to the bodybuilding model even now in the age of Crossfit. Bodybuilding works by moving a large tonnage (weight x total reps) in a short time. Classic Crossfit fits that formula as well, with its “race against the clock” format, though choosing shorter, more frenetic workouts than would bodybuilders who want to add size.
But bodybuilding is like the display in a shop window: it’s the most visible to the public eye, but inside the store are dozens of very different products that might suit you better.
In the wide world of iron sports, bodybuilding is an oddball and an outlier in that it scarcely cares about strength. The strength sports (powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, strongman events, jumping, throwing, sprinting, gymnastics) exist solely to move heavy things through space. Bodybuilding alone exists to re-engineer your own body tissue. It just happens to use barbells as a means to that end, because it turns out that the best way to expand muscle cells is through one very particular trait called “strength endurance,” the muscle’s ability to overcome fatigue and rep a moderate weight for one to two minutes at a time.
Many people blindly copy this peculiar bodybuilding style of lifting weights without knowing that it may actually push them farther back from their goals. Take trainees who want to “get toned” and improve their physiques. It might be perfect for them to lift like bodybuilders if they are underfed teenagers in the developing world, but in modern North America, for 98% of us, if we want to look buff, the way to accomplish it is to get leaner, not bigger. And—this is an open secret in the fitness world—when it comes to leaning out, exercise matters very little. Mostly it depends on how you eat.
And bodybuilding burns up a lot of physical/emotional resources, with its constant cycle of breaking down muscle cells and refurbishing them. Few other iron athletes destroy and build so much tissue. Strictly speaking, strength athletes do not so much “build” strength—that is a bodybuilding metaphor—as practice it, without necessarily changing much cellular composition.
So more than other iron sports, you can easily overtrain on bodybuilding, deplete yourself, get inflamed and chubby, overeat, and mess up your sleep and mood. (And remember that after the 1960s, you must presume that any published bodybuilding routine is written by and for drug-assisted lifters.)
By all means, do consider a bodybuilding program. In the modern West, the old 3×10 and 5×5 routines are virtually rites of passage, voyages of physical self-discovery, and you almost have to master them as foundational skills. Just know that:
- Bodybuilding is just one small corner of strength training. The other iron disciplines offer some completely different goals, using methods utterly foreign to bodybuilding. You may or may not like them better.
- Be judicious about whose routine you follow. You want a coach with a proven record of training people of your age, fitness history, and level of motivation. If you do not have access to such an individual, follow the classic programs from the pre-steroid era of the 1950s.