Where it came from, How it Works

 By Bill Dobbins

Ronnie_Kevin-Olympia-2360Bodybuilding as a sport – the Grand Opera of the human body.

People tend to think of bodybuilding as a bunch of hyper-muscular men (or women nowadays), wearing brief posing trunks, oiled-up and hitting posing on stage in a contest. What Arnold Schwarzenegger was doing in Pumping Iron. There is that aspect of bodybuilding, but what those athletes are engaged in is the sport of bodybuilding. The bodybuilding method, on the other hand, is the system of exercise and diet they use to create those extreme physiques. And this can be employed by anybody who chooses to do so for a wide variety of goals and purposes.

Competition is the grand opera of the human body.  But not every singer intends to perform at the Metropolitan Opera and not everyone who does bodybuilding training is focused on qualifying for the Mr. Olympia or Mr. Universe.

In reality, when you engage in diet and exercise your body doesn’t know why you are doing this or what intentions are in your mind. Like a computer, the body responds specifically to specific input.   The bodybuilding method has been shown to be the most effective and efficient means of transforming the body – building and shaping muscle, reducing body fat – ever devised. So whether you want to be Mr. or Ms. Olympia, to improve your athletic performance, shape up your body for modeling and just to look and feel better, no other system will give you the same degree and kind of results.

Humans have known for many thousands of years that heavy resistance exercise, such as lifting weights, allows your muscle to become bigger and stronger. Strength has been demonstrated in various cultures in all sorts of weight lifting events. Lifting heavy stones is an example of a weight lifting competition that has continued to exist into modern times.

Progressive-resistance training is a particular approach to this kind of strength training. You begin by lifting as much as you can. Over time, as you muscles get stronger an adapt to working against that amount of resistance, you increase the weight to force the muscles to continue to get stronger. The trick is to challenge the muscles with small increases at any time but not so much additional resistance that you over-stress the body and risk incurring injury.


Progressive resistance exercise is the stuff of history and myth. Milo of Crotona was a 6th century Greek wrestler who is supposed to have developed incredible strength using a version of this kind of workout. As a boy, he began picking up a calf every day. He continued this as both he and the calf grew until at one point he was able to pick up a full-grown bull.

The aim of progressive-resistance training is to challenge the body and nervous system to force the muscles to adapt and get stronger in order to cope with the increasing demand. Each time the body adapts, you stimulate it to continue this adaptation and you achieve a series of improvements over time.

Bodybuilding involves making the muscles bigger and stronger, but an importance aspect of this effort is changing how the physique looks. Famous strong men in history tended to be thick and blocky. Traditionally, athletes like football linemen or weightlifters do not have a lot of aesthetic quality, definition or muscularity. They tend to look big, thick and blocky. However, this is changing nowadays as a wide variety of athletes use bodybuilding training as part of their overall workout schedule in order create a balance of muscles and opposing muscle groups. As a result, their performance not only improves but many tend to have much better looking bodies.

The bodybuilding method allows you to work each individual muscle to the degree it requires, focusing on each in turn and creating a physique that is the result of muscular sculpture. The degree that this is possible depends of factors like genetics, intensity of effort, consistency and technique. But the more your genetic talent, the harder and longer you work and the more you know what you are doing the better results you can expect.

Milos Sarcev
Isolation exercises help bodybuilders turn their bodies into aesthetic sculptures.

You just have to look at any group of people see how much they can differ in genetic characteristics. Stand an NBA center next to a professional jockey and this is obvious. There are different genders, individuals who are taller, shorter, more husky or lean, with long or short arms and legs and with a variety of hair, eye and skin color. Different bodies have more or fewer muscle and fat cells, different types and distribution of muscle cells. Longer and shorter muscle-belly lengths. Because of both physiological and biochemical reasons some muscle cells respond better to exercise and diet than others.

Everybody can improve their bodies for the better with exercise and diets.  But no matter how hard and smart your efforts, genetics is a limiting factor – so you have to work with what nature has given you. And if you don’t believe in genetics, then get taller.

Modern bodybuilding essentially began in the 1920s and 1930s. There was a type of competition called Physical Culture. In those days, training in the gym wasn’t as segregated into various specific types as it is now. Athletes tended to engage in what we would now call “cross training” workouts and would compete doing various physical feats like hand-balancing or gymnastics and also be judged on their physiques. But over time it became apparent that those who engaged in serious weightlifting, as opposed to track athletes, gymnasts, boxers and others, had a distinct advantage. They changed the look of their bodies much more dramatically. So by 1939, contests evolved that we now know of as bodybuilding in which the weightlifters competing among themselves to display the most dramatic and well-developed physiques.

Mester Group-final
Today’s version of Physical Culture is the competition category of Men’s Physique.

From the 1930s right through the 1950s, bodybuilders continued to train more like weightlifters. The standard method was to work the whole body in one session, three times a week. Equipment was minimum so it was difficult to do certain movements.   The late Reg Park, Mr. Universe, once explained he didn’t have a bench for bench presses early on in his career, so he would lie back across a sand bag in order to allow him to drop his elbows down below his torso to do a press. When Arnold Schwarzenegger was back in Austria his gym had no standard incline bench. But there was a standing incline bench he would use by cleaning a barbell, leaning back against the incline, do his presses and then stand back up to put down the weight.

With this kind of workout and such limited equipment, early bodybuilders were able to develop a lot of impressive muscle, but could not achieve the degree of size and aesthetic quality we see using modern techniques and equipment.

As the bodybuilding got into the 60s, 70s and beyond, the training method became more refined and sophisticated. Over time we saw more quality, much better symmetry such as wide shoulders, narrow waists and flaring thigh; definition and muscularity increased dramatically as did the development of each and every muscle in the body, including some of the smaller areas not stimulated by workouts that lack enough isolation exercises.

Today we pretty much know what the “bodybuilding look” represents. Just look at the difference in how Sylvester Stallone looks in the first Rocky movie and the more ripped and defined physique he displays in sequels.   In fact, nowadays there is hardly a single action movie star without a very muscular physique – except maybe Bruce Willis. And after decades of speculation it has pretty much been determined exactly how this effect is achieved.

The bodybuilding effect comes from a combination of enough resistance and sufficient number of reps.   This works out to be:

*doing reps at 75% on one-rep maximum strength
*performing about 60 secs total of time-under-tension reps for each muscle or muscle group.

This accounts for why most successful bodybuilders do 3 to 4 set of 3 to 4 exercises for most muscle groups – 8 to 12 reps to failure for upper body movements, 12 to 16 reps to failure for the legs. Some do more or fewer exercises and sets or reps than others, but this formula represents the sweet spot and should be the starting point for any individual program.

It is important to understand that, when you exercise, you are not actually affecting the muscles directly. You are using activity to send information through the nervous system that will cause your body to respond by muscles become bigger and stronger.   This formula of set/reps/resistance is what has been discover to work by trial-and-effort and then verified by science.

By the way, if 1 minute total time–under-tension seems too little, think of what actually happens in a set. Your muscles are under tension from the resistance for only a short time as you perform each rep.  The total time spend doing reps is actually much less than you might think – unless you are doing some kind of specialized training that uses slower reps and more deliberate concentric (lowering) movements known as negatives.

Women have been competing in organized bodybuilding since the late 1970s.

Training only part of the body in each workout, with (usually) 4 to 5 workouts a week with rest days in between. This allowed for hitting each muscle or muscle group with more intensity and giving them additional time to rest and recuperate. There are many ways to organize the training, working out once or twice a day, grouping different body parts together, adding more or fewer rest days.

But almost all successful training splits nowadays involve not working two major body parts in the same workout, training fewer days per week, doing shorter but very intense workouts and resting between workouts to allow for recovery and growth.

Exercise stimulates growth but you grow when you rest, not when you workout. Too much training and too little rest simply don’t allow this process to work at optimum levels.

Weightlifting movements tend to be compound movements. That is, they work a lot of muscles or muscle groups at the same time. A bench press is a compound movement because it involves the pectorals, triceps and front delts. Squats use most of the lower body, including quadriceps, adductors, hip flexors and, if you go deep enough, the hamstrings and glutes.

Isolation exercises, on the other hand, target much smaller areas. Curls target the biceps, triceps pushdowns the triceps, leg extensions the quadriceps. Bodybuilders still do the major compound exercises that come from weightlifting, but they also do isolation movements to focus on smaller and more specific muscle areas.

Adding isolation exercises to a workout is a large part of what allowed bodybuilders to sculpt their physiques, rather than just build them. Need bigger, fuller delts? Hamstrings not impressive enough when you flex your legs? Should your triceps be bigger in comparison to the biceps? Then you adjust your workouts and attack your weaknesses. Add more movements for a problem area, try different exercises, schedule them early in your workout or split to hit these areas when you are more rested.

Modern gyms are full of many different kinds of exercise machines and cables that allow for a variety of exercises not available to earlier bodybuilders. All of these can be valuable in creating a complete and balance physique. But the basics of weight training remains free weights.

Mass is built primarily with free weights and compound exercises.

The human body did not evolve to exercise on a machine. Machines provide resistance, and this resistance can be difficult to overcome, but it isn’t heavy. Heavy is a condition in which the body is working to overcome gravity and needs to control and balance with weight using a lot of additional ancillary muscles. This stimulates a lot of additional activity from the nervous system and the muscles that doesn’t occur using a machine. No matter how much resistance you add to a leg press machine it is not the same as trying to control and balance a barbell across the back of your shoulders doing a heavy squat.

So while machines and cables contribute to developing a complete physique, the fundamental way to build and strength muscle is by training with free weights.

The competition bodybuilders of the modern era are bigger, harder and more ripped than those of decades ago. As late as the 1970s, the standard approach to bodybuilder was working out five or six days a week, twice a day – a degree of overtraining that over-fatigued the muscles and did not give them time to rest, recuperate and grow.

The modern approach is fewer, shorter and more intense workouts. To give the body more time to recuperate. Limit other activity such as cardio exercise to reduce systemic fatigue. This, it turns out, is a kind of stimulation the body and the nervous system are programmed by nature to respond to. It is how we were designed by nature to function. In that sense, nobody ever invented bodybuilding training. It was simply discovered, like a new mountain range or continent or a chemical element.

In most sports, being stronger and lean, having a better strength-to-weight ratio, with muscles developed in the appropriate balance and proportion leads to improve performance.   For a long time, coaches believed that muscles that were “picked up in the gym” hurt the performance of their athletes. Weight training was thought of as artificial. Look at the difference in the training programs of Rocky and Drago in Rocky IV and you see the difference in philosophies. But nowadays athletes in sports as varied as golf, baseball, swimming and even motor racing are all making improvements in their performance by the kind of progressive-resistance exercises based on the programs developed over the decades by competition bodybuilders.

There are certain lots of sports-specific exercises advocated by coaches and sports-trainers. Some of these are beneficial but others are others appear to be approaches that seem to be appropriate but for which no valid evidence exists. The problem is that no movement designed to mimic that of a sports activity actually does so exactly. And it is the specificity of sports performance that is an important part of what makes it effective. For example, throwing a baseball well is a highly developed skill. But a pitcher doesn’t learn to throw better or harder by practicing with a softball instead of a regulation baseball. Boxers who do a lot of sparring (as opposed to hitting a heavy bag) with 16-ounce gloves don’t improve their speed and timing for throwing punches wearing gloves that weight 20 ounces.

But the point of using bodybuilding is that it is general, not specific. It exercises the entire body in proportion that simply creates a better instrument, a stronger and more balanced physique that can then be trained to excel in any specific sport. All sports actually develop physical ability in an unbalanced way – certain muscles used much more than others, more upper or lower body involvement, one side of the body or another. Imbalance over time can lead to injury. For example, runners often experience hamstring problems because their quadriceps are way over developed compared to the back of the leg. But bodybuilding helps restore an overall balance and simply gives the athlete a better physical instrument to use in pursuit of improved sports performance.

Olympic track champion Carl Lewis trained with weights when competing – and still does.

How the body looks and functions, aspects like strength and speed and strength-to-weight ratio are a matter not just of muscular development but of overall body composition, a significant part of which is diet.

The goal of diet in bodybuilding is two-fold: to lose as much body fat as possible while retaining as much muscle mass as you can. You can have loads of muscle but unless you reduce the overlying layers of fat tissue you will never achieve a condition of being ripped, defined or hyper-muscular – characteristics we generally associate with an in-shape bodybuilder.

For conventional purposes, weight-loss diet mostly concerns cutting back on caloric intake and adding more activity. You go into a state of caloric deficit, maintain this over time and you’ll lose body fat. That’s why almost any diet you find in one of the thousands of diet books and programs available will most probably work. At least, for a length of time.

Competition bodybuilders have more extreme goals: ending up looking like a super-muscular, incredibly defined anatomy chart. To do this, they trick the body into an extreme but temporary state of very low body fat and dehydration. This requires a highly disciplined program that extends over a period of about 12 week. They are so good at this that even a failed bodybuilder diet would be deemed a success by any other standards.

Most people who do bodybuilding but have no intention of getting into serious competition can learn from this kind of program and can apply elements of it to their own situation, and whatever level they choose and end up seeing positive results. Like the system of bodybuilding weight training, the diet is pretty much guaranteed to work as long as you follow the general principles with discipline and consistency.

The basis of any fat-reducing diet is to take in fewer calories than you expend by a combination of metabolic processes and activity. When the body takes in less energy than it requires it burns stored body fat to make up the deficit. There are endless approaches to dieting strategy but bodybuilding reduces this to a few simple rules:

*Settle on an average daily caloric intake that will keep you in negative caloric balance.

*Eat enough protein to sustain lean body mass.

*Reduce fat intake but not to an extreme.

*Adjust your carbohydrate intake to conform to your caloric target.

*Stay in negative caloric balance by additional exercise.

Weight training builds muscle.  Diet defines it.

When you reduce caloric intake, especially when you continue on a strict diet for some 12 weeks, it makes sense to choose nutritionally beneficial foods to make all your calories count. Therefore, although some bodybuilders have occasional “cheat days,” their basic diet involves a relatively limited diet of “real food,” low fat protein sources, vegetables and some starches and a very limited intake of processed or fast food.

Because bodybuilders reduce their caloric intake, they generally rely on supplements to insure they are getting enough nutrition – including protein supplements which allow them the maximum amount of quality, useable protein with the minimum of calories.

Since the goal of the bodybuilding diet is to stay in negative caloric balance over time, one way of achieving this is by increasing exercise activity. Low resistance, high volume exercise is good for this because it burns up considerable calories without creating too much systemic fatigue that interferes with your ability to do intense gym workouts.

Cardio exercise is anything that elevates the heart rate and keeps it there for an extended period. This can include walking or running, bike riding, stationary bicycle, swimming or the use of various kinds of machines like steppers. The downside is intense cardio can create fatigue in the muscle involved and overall systemic fatigue – which slows down recovery from gym workouts.

In general, additional cardio activity is fine for individuals who are using the bodybuilding system but are not interested in the absolute degree of muscular development. Serious competition bodybuilders have to be more cautious since, in terms of building muscle, the absolutely best of level of added cardio is zero. CV exercise does nothing to enhance muscular development and it does create some degree of fatigue. So while a non-competition bodybuilder might choose to enhance diet with 45 minutes or an hour of cardio a day, this might not be a good idea for a Mr. Universe contender. When excessive cardio was briefly in fashion in the early 1980s there were several top pros who largely destroyed their physiques with doing way too much of it.

Cardio exercise is a beneficial aspect of dieting for both women and men.

The bodybuilding method of exercise and diet was not invented by medicine or science. It is the result of decade of trial-and-effort experimentation by competition bodybuilders. They have discovered the most efficient and effective method of building and shaping the muscles of the body, with maximum aesthetic symmetry, proportion and definition and to reduce body fat while protecting lean body mass as much as possible.

This method is used by competition bodybuilders to create physiques with the maxim level of development and muscularity allowed by individual genetics. But the same system can be employed by athletes trying to improve performance, actors and models and anybody else whose goal it is to create a fit, muscular and good looking body. Bodybuilding techniques are also the basis of most exercises used in rehab therapy.

If you are performing resistance exercises in a gym, no matter what you are a trainer might call it, if you are doing bodybuilding – or you are wasting a lot of time and effort with activity that is not as effective or efficient as it could be.

The problem is that the word bodybuilding has become too narrowly focused on the sport of bodybuilding, the top pros have become so huge that even some fans of the sport have been turned off and that the efficacy of the method has been obscured by controversies involved anabolic drugs.

But, in fact, bodybuilding has something for ever body and it is a key to maintaining a strong, lean and youthful body, well into mature life, in an age of too much food and too little exercise that has given rise to increasing levels of obesity and is slowly overwhelming our system of health delivery.

Zane_Dobbins_Ferrigno-Frank Zane, Mr. Olympia    Bill Dobbins      Lou Ferrigno, Mr. Universe.





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