To initiate Volodya the 28kg Kettlebell, I suitcase-carried him with the Backpack of Bricks up the summit. Today’s game was that I could set him down when needed, but for the whole hike I had to hold my chest and head upright. No hunched backs.
I had no idea how bad I’d be at that. Sure, in a life full of keyboards and steering wheels we’re all weak in the postural muscles of our upper backs, but I must excel at believing, “Ha, boring universal truths don’t apply to ME!!”
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.
The Goofy Yoga Shorts. Never mind what the smart-alecks say [looking sideways at Lee], these were SOOOOO practical. They didn’t bind my legs and, when wet, they drip-dried in no time.
Caffeine and Sugar. I drank the equivalent of six or seven cups of coffee. I only regret not drinking twice that. And on Ultra Scott’s advice, I broke out of ketosis during the event and inhaled a pound and a half of chocolate. He was so very right about this: I did get momentarily tired, but I never got exhausted.
Kettlebells: More than ever, I think that if you have only one conditioning tool in your toolbox, it should be a kettlebell. If someone asks, “What is the single thing you could do to prepare for ten different physical challenges, chosen at random by a smiling, demonic taskmaster?” you should answer, “Kettlebells.”
The glasses strap: They look dorky, but one poor sod lost his glasses in the surf.
2. Terrible Ideas: Four of the Many
Boonie hat: If it wasn’t getting sucked off my head in the surf, it was obstructing my vision. It’s perfect in the climate where I live, but for these events, it’s a wool beanie or nothing.
Not layering: I knew we’d get wet and cold, so why didn’t I pack some kind of underlayer? After Surf Horror™, other people changed into something dry and looked very happy, whereas I was a trembling wreck.
We all made it! The all-night ruck confirmed some clichés that are cliché for good reason:
1) People metamorphose in shocking ways. A bantamweight guy who struggled with sand bags early in the night turned into the Incredible Hulk around 5am. Either he was free-basing something or he’s really, really a morning person.
2) When you feel completely smoked, you’ve only used 10% of your work capacity.
3) The mental chatter (雜念) that Buddhists hate so much stops for almost nothing. During surf torture, I had the added torment of Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy” on autoplay in my head and I was obsessively analyzing the beach stench of putrescent sea life. (Final conclusion: it smelled half like brimstone and half like unwashed baby bottoms.)
4) Shared adversity bonds people. “Ain’t nobody Superman,” as an old coach said, and even strong performers sometimes flag and need to be “carried” along by the others, so everyone gets chances to take care of everyone else when they’re weak and needy.
Strength is a skill in the way that hitting a baseball far is a skill, or boxing. Being big and hitting big do not correlate all that well. The same goes for judo and jiu-jitsu, where leverage and technique are king. Of course size helps, but it turns out that coordination counts for waaaay more.
So there are ways to “learn strength” without adding meat to your frame. Why do that? Maybe you are a runner or gymnast, or you do not want to buy a new wardrobe, or you want to stay within a weight class. Once I saw the West Point rugby team play and remarked that their players were much smaller than ours. It was explained that the cadets were required by the Army to stay within a prescribed weight limit. They were not allowed to inflate themselves to mountainous sizes at the squat rack.
Also, learning “skinny strength” is easy and comfortable, both physically and mentally, and so it is wonderful for lazy people like me. You just practice your skill as often as possible while staying as fresh as possible. You must stop long before you get fatigued. Don’t you love that? To succeed, you must avoid working hard! In fact, you will not even do a “workout”—remove the word from your vocabulary. Seriously. What you will do is a practice session. If you were learning a language, you would learn better and more happily in 15 minutes a day than in a single 2-hour slog each week. This is no different.
For fun, try the “ladder” method. Say you can do 10 pushups. Not bad! Get down and do one pushup, then take a short rest. Now do two pushups and take a short rest. Then do three pushups. And stop there. Take a longer rest and repeat the “ladder”: first one pushup, then two, then three. Repeat that sequence, with ample rest, until you get bored or you feel the first whiff of fatigue, and then stop. It will take only a few minutes and make you feel peppier than when you began. Do that once a day for a week (or better yet twice a day, as long as you stop well before muscle fatigue), and then take a day off and test your pushup max again. You will BLOW AWAY your old number.
You can use these “ladders” easily for exercises like pushups, pullups, crunches, and planks—where you’re trying to increase reps or time—and it’s so simple that you can probably teach rodents and ultra marathoners to do it. (Just kidding, ultra runners! I love you guys! I just don’t understand what drives you.) For higher primates like the rest of you, there are also simple tweaks that let you apply it to pure strength exercises.