Leonardo da Vinci wrote, "Where there is shouting, there is no true knowledge." I don't know about you, but I've heard a lot of shouting in my many years of serious training.
Powerlifters shout at bodybuilders because bodybuilding produces mountains of muscle tissue with no functional purpose. Strongman competitors look down on powerlifters because there's more to strength than a one-rep max in three lifts performed with a minuscule range of motion. Olympic lifters, if you can find them, get to feel smug because every 4 years, you can turn on the TV at 3 AM and see them compete for gold. And everyone hates on CrossFit.
But what do we get for all this sound and fury? Does picking one strength-training system to the exclusion of the others help you reach your goals? Or does it hold you back?
It's time to make peace. There's no one mode of training that works for the diverse goals of T Nation readers. Those who want to be big, lean, strong, and ready for any challenge won't get there by selecting programs from Column A without considering the techniques in columns B, C, or D that might be useful.
Let's look at the pros and cons of each of the mainstream training philosophies.
I like bodybuilding. Matter of fact, I was a dedicated NPC competitor from 1994 to 2006, which made me the proud owner of several pairs of custom-made posing trunks. I shaved my body regularly, and I made liberal use of tanning beds. Since I'm African-American, you can imagine the looks I got when I walked into a tanning salon. If "tanorexia" had been listed in the Manual of Mental Disorders, I'm sure someone would've accused me of having it.
But despite my years of pumping up and oiling down, I'll be the first to admit that bodybuilding is the most superficial sport ever created. Judging is subjective. Most competitors are narcissists, and most spectators are voyeurs.
The main problem with bodybuilding is not so much the sport itself, but the personae taken on by the obsessive individuals who compete. They walk, talk, eat, sleep, breathe, and shit bodybuilding.
Here's what I mean:
I'm at a local bodybuilding show. It's standing room only, packed wall-to-wall with meatheads and Saran-wrapped fitness chicks. I'm standing next to three well-built and fairly attractive ladies. Fifteen minutes into the show, I hear a watch alarm go off. One of the women pulls out a Ziploc bag full of grilled chicken breasts, hands one to each of her friends, and takes one for herself.
Do you get the implication? The show was only 2 1/2 hours long. Rather than eat before and after, they had to have those chicken breasts on schedule, which just happened to be 15 minutes into the show, while they were standing in a crowded room with hundreds of strangers!
That said, I'd bet everyone reading this admires the physique of at least one bodybuilder or Figure competitor, past or present. Despite all the comic-gold bodybuilders provide, they do end up with great-looking muscles.
|Posing teaches tremendous muscle control
|Posing doesn't help you succeed in any sport or activity other than bodybuilding and nude modeling
|Half your wardrobe is T-shirts, which rarely need ironing
|If you want to wear something besides T-shirts, you're out of luck; designer clothes don't fit your cartoonish proportions
|Normal people find excessive muscles repulsive, which is great if you don't like to be around normal people
|It's difficult to get a job outside the fitness industry, due to the fact that normal people make most of the hiring decisions
|Top-level bodybuilders are the highest-paid competitors in strength sports
|Training drugs are expensive
|These women attend bodybuilding shows
|Even those women don't want to be around you and your noxious protein farts in the weeks leading up to a contest
|Children think you look like a superhero
|Adults think you must be compensating for a sexual shortcoming
|You occasionally get to make money doing photo shoots and appearances
|Most of these appearances involve jumping out of cakes at gay birthday parties
Before I got into bodybuilding, I spent four years as a powerlifter, competing in the 181- and 198-pound weight classes. My best lifts in competition were a 606-pound squat, a 314 bench (which still makes me sad), and a 661 deadlift.
As a trainer, I know that powerlifting has had a huge and mostly positive influence on training for a wide range of goals. The three power lifts are used by everyone from gym rats looking to get a little bigger and stronger to elite athletes competing for multimillion-dollar contracts. Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell has been one of the most innovative and influential exercise gurus of my lifetime, inventing or popularizing the reverse hyperextension machine, conjugate periodization, and training tools like bands and chains.
But as a former competitor I know that powerlifters as a group are out of shape for anything other than powerlifting. Sure, the Westside guys do a lot of GPP, but even the best-conditioned powerlifters aren't fit by any traditional definition.
|Unlike bodybuilding, your training methods emphasize progressive overload
|After all that training, all that you care about is your performance in three specific lifts
|You'll see significant increases in muscle mass, strength, and power
|If you're a superheavyweight, no matter how strong you are, the average person just thinks you're fat
|You don't have to worry about carrying chicken breasts and broccoli with you everyone you go; McDonalds and Burger King work just fine
|A big belly improves squatting ability
|The perfect body for bench pressing is a barrel-shaped torso with short arms, which is a liability in any other sport
|You don't have to worry about getting picked on or bullied. Ever.
|You have constant back, knee, and shoulder pain, and your career is defined by your willingness and ability to come back from serious injuries
|You form strong bonds with your fellow lifters
|You'll need those friendships, because very few hot chicks attend powerlifting competitions
|Putting up a big weight is awe inspiring
|Rectal prolapse is awe inspiring in a different kind of way
Unlike powerlifting and bodybuilding, I've never competed in Olympic weightlifting, although I once attended a course on weightlifting for sports performance at the Olympic training center in Colorado. It was a great experience, and certainly helped me appreciate the skill, athleticism, and raw power weightlifting requires. It remains one of my favorite Olympic sports; I love watching world-class lifters push themselves to the limit.
That said, the value of Olympic lifts in sports-performance training is hotly debated, and I no longer recommend them for my athletes. In my view, the lack of specificity creates limited transfer from the lifts to the sports my athletes compete in. I'm also concerned about the deficiency of eccentric loading of the posterior-chain muscles, which are the prime movers in most sports.
|Olympic lifts are an excellent demonstration of technique, agility, balance, strength, and power
|Perfecting your technique in Olympic lifts requires a huge investment of time and considerable coaching
|You'll impress people in the gym
|Few commercial gyms are set up to accommodate Olympic lifts, and some forbid them outright
|The power you develop with these lifts may contribute to sports performance
|The risk of injury is high, due to the ballistic nature of the lifts
|The very best lifters in the sport get a shot at Olympic medals every four years
|If you want to be one of the best, you must sell everything you own and move to Bulgaria, Poland, or China, where you'll train 3 to 5 times a day, 5 to 6 days a week for years on end
|Chicks dig Olympic medalists
|Can you name one medalist in weightlifting from the 2008 Olympics?
Strongman competition is the third strength sport I've competed in, and I can tell you from experience that it's brutally hard, with the most physically challenging events I've ever attempted. Bodybuilders have more sculpted physiques, and powerlifters and Olympic lifters are better in their specific lifts, but the best Strongman competitors come close in all three areas. Not only are they fantastically strong, but their strength carries over to the real world. They can lift, pull, and throw things that would cripple mere mortals. And some of their physiques are so well-developed that you have to think they could win a bodybuilding contest with a few weeks of dieting.
|Wide variety of events prevents boredom
|It's hard to find equipment to practice the events — few places offer 800-pound tires to flip, or 360-pound Atlas stones to lift and carry
|Can and should be performed outside
|Friends always call you first when they need help moving to a new apartment
|You'll get stronger than ever before, with significant gains in muscle mass and more core strength than you ever thought possible
|The risk of serious injuries is off the charts, and you'll need every bit of that core strength to protect your spine from permanent damage
|Unlike bodybuilding and powerlifting, the competition is interesting and easy to understand for an average spectator
|There aren't many spectators, average or otherwise
|You'll never, ever lose at tug of war
|When's the last time anyone asked you to join a tug of war?
Circuit training has gotten a facelift. It's now known as CrossFit, a famously nonspecific training system that will prepare you for ... well, it's hard to say what, exactly. There's an annual two-day competition, called The CrossFit Games, in which you can go up against the best CrossFitters to determine who's the best at doing CrossFit.
Sarcasm aside, CrossFit is popular with military and police units because it incorporates strength, power, and endurance in a way that prepares them for virtually any physical challenge they might encounter.
|Performed in a group setting, where motivation is high and you're encouraged to work very, very hard
|You rarely feel energetic after a workout
|Methodology is based on exceeding previous achievements
|Exercise selection is random and inappropriate for goals; most experienced trainers cringe at the idea of doing high-rep power cleans in a fatigued state
|You'll get lean
|You won't win many arm-wrestling contests
|CrossFit training does wonderful things to female participants
|Beautiful, fit women tend to be turned off when you vomit in the middle of a workout
|Camaraderie and esprit de corps is extremely high
|If leader told them to don black shirts and tennis shoes and eat applesauce laced with barbiturate so they could rendezvous with heaven-bound UFO, they would do it
So, How Messed Up Are We?
Okay, so all of our training systems are at least partially messed up. And all of us, in pursuit of our goals, do weird things — or, at least, things that seem weird to people who aren't part of our circle of friends and fellow trainees. But ask yourself this: Wasn't that the goal in the first place? Society tells us not to be too big, too specialized, or too different, but the whole reason we got into training was because we wanted to distinguish ourselves in some way. We wanted to be — dare I say it? — better than the normal folks who accept that they were born to be fat or skinny or slow or weak or just generally unathletic.
Every training system that feeds our need to be different has something to offer:
Bodybuilding, with its emphasis on high volume and muscle-focused movements, has a long history of helping people get bigger and develop more aesthetically pleasing proportions.
Powerlifting helps us get bigger and stronger.
Olympic lifting is certainly fun to watch, and the lifts are fun to learn and perform. The jury may still be out on how much they help improve athletic performance, but there's no question you develop tremendous strength, power, speed, balance, and coordination.
Strongman training improves a wide range of measurable attributes, including size, strength, power, core stability, and anaerobic conditioning.
And CrossFit, while it's fun to make jokes about, sure as hell produces well-conditioned trainees, which is why it's so popular with elite police and military units.
The trick is to find a way to combine the best aspects of each without drinking so much of any single flavor of Kool-Aid that you forget why you started training in the first place. How to do that? Well, maybe that's the subject of a future article.