For 20 years I was obsessed with getting big.
I was a bag of bones when I graduated from high school and didn’t even break 100 pounds. I was tired of looking like a skeleton, so I put all my effort into developing as much muscle mass as possible. I was fully dedicated to transferring my skinny five-foot-four frame into a meathead.
With hard work, I was able to gain seventy-five pounds by my mid-twenties. My success was due in part to training at World Gym and Gold’s Gym in the early 80’s, where I was inspired daily by watching the routines of bodybuilders like Arnold, Franco, Tom Platz, and other greats.
My 20 years of training at these great gyms enabled me to try every bodybuilding technique and method ever invented, even though I never thought of actually entering a bodybuilding competition. I was horrified at the thought of wearing Speedos on stage. Still, bodybuilding training and packing on muscle was my passion.
I continued to do single-body part training into my 30’s with some major changes. I pretty much stopped squatting, doing deadlifts, or picking up anything heavy from the ground. My only leg and back work was on machines. Also, I rarely trained my abs. In my mind I was still that skinny runt that couldn’t break 100 pounds, so being chiseled wasn’t first and foremost in my mind.
Biceps work and lots of benching dominated my workouts. Having big arms and a huge chest was pretty much my focus for a whole decade Having big arms and a huge chest was my identity.
By the time I turned 40, my training had stagnated. I wasn’t bored; I still loved going to the gym, but I’d reached a plateau. I stopped getting big and the only thing that was growing was my gut.
I was fat, soft, terribly out of shape and suddenly on hypertension medication. When I finally was ready to face my denial, I knew I had to change. Bodybuilding was my life, but now I knew I’d run my course with this type of training.
I didn’t jump into strength and conditioning work immediately. I was too afraid and skeptical of anything other than the old-fashioned bodybuilding split routines. Over time, I experimented and tried out different training protocols. I struggled, but I persevered. The new methods I discovered now define who I am.
The transition from bodybuilder to a conditioning athlete was never easy. I wrote the following tips because I know how isolated your journey is going to be, IF you decide to make the switch.
I made the transformation and can’t conceive of ever going back to the way I used to train. With the growing popularity of MMA, the shift is changing from wanting to look big like Arnold to training to look like Georges St. Pierre. For those of you ready to make the great leap or if you’re just conditioning-curious, here are some ideas to help you make the change.
1 – Change your aesthetic goals
Accept the fact you’ll never win the Mr. Olympia competition. Be grateful for all those years of bodybuilding and that you got as huge as you possibly could. Be realistic with yourself and possibly assess that you’re overweight, a little flabby, and probably might have some heath issues to address.
You need a change. Pick an ideal physique that you want to attain. So instead of looking like Arnold, pick an athlete that looks like a bad ass, such as GSP. And most importantly, remember that chicks dig guys with abs. You can get in the best shape of your life if you work your ass for it. It won’t be easy, but it’s definitely attainable with hard work and a different training regimen. Being open-minded is a must.
2 – Full body workouts
After reading about the alternative to single-body part workouts, I wasn’t convinced. For 20 years, single-body part training was the belief system that I never, ever, questioned or doubted. I stubbornly refused to believe that full-body workouts would be effective in packing on massive muscles.
There are many arguments to train the whole body in one session, but what convinced me to give it a shot was my need to learn how to move my body as one unit. Not only was I out of shape, but I also wasn’t athletic.
I don’t want to use overplayed words like ‘non-functional,’ but I was definitely borderline clumsy. Playing a softball game with friends at the park on a Sunday afternoon had the potential to be a very embarrassing situation for me. Going on a hike with one of my Matchmaker.com dates was never a good idea, unless my date had an oxygen tank in her picnic basket.
But reality finally hit me when I had to help a neighbor move a heavy sofa and I struggled until it landed on my foot. For a guy with a lot of muscle, I sure wasn’t very strong.
For twenty years I’d hid behind my muscles, posing as an “athlete,” but now I’d been exposed. Too many years of isolation muscle work and not working my muscles together as one powerful kinetic chain had finally caught up with me. My big muscle groups, like my back and glutes, were dormant.
As result, I was weak as shit.
So the change of pace to a full-body strength program now seemed more appealing to me. I focused on compound movements and for the first month I didn’t know if I was getting much out of the workouts. I hadn’t done any deadlifts, squats, or heavy rows in years, so I wasn’t sure how my form was or, for that matter, what the hell central nervous system training was all about.
However, I persisted and the once in a blue moon full-body workout turned into a twice a week workout and eventually a three times a week workout. I was soon motivated by how much weight I was able to move. The quick improvements fascinated me.
I went from trying to build bulky muscles to learning how to get my CNS to recruit as much muscle as possible during each lift. I was getting stronger and my body composition started to change. To my surprise, I was getting bigger overall.
For those of you who want to incorporate a strength training protocol to your regimen, I suggest you pick basic compound movements like a deadlift, a front or back squat, military press, barbell row, barbell hip thrusts, pull-ups, pushups, or good mornings. Stick to the basic multi-joint movements.
Remember you’re now on a strength program so you’ve got to go heavy. A simple protocol is to pick 4 movements, do 5 sets for each movement, and keep the reps low from 4 to 6 reps (except for pull ups and pushups which you train until near failure).
Notice I said near failure and not to complete exhaustion. When I was bodybuilding it just seemed logical to lift until I couldn’t budge the load for even an inch. With this new plan, you want to hold back some and learn to leave some extra fuel in your reserve tank.
How do you train hard when you can’t go all out? It’s a fine line, I know. So I did my research and found that all the C & S coaches that I respected were vehemently against training to failure. It’s the direct opposite to what I used to do with my bodybuilding training where I usually extended the exhaustion with half reps and drop sets.
I just felt I wasn’t doing enough unless I trained to complete failure. It was a hard concept to give up until I started to see my PR’s go up. Once you see your strength numbers going through the roof, you’ll understand how training to failure is a detriment to your strength development.
It took a while, but I finally saw the correlation between getting strong and building muscle. Even now I could kick myself in the head for all those thousands of training sessions using relatively light weights for high reps or screaming in pain while doing concentration curls.
3 – Stop focusing on “the pump”
When I was bodybuilding, nothing felt better to me than the pump. It let me know what I was doing was working. Plus I just liked how my arms looked when they were ballooned with blood and veins popping out. So when I started to do conditioning work I had to stop doing what was definitely the most pleasurable part of my old bodybuilding days. I had to say good-bye to the pump. What I had to target instead was my metabolism.
For the conditioning part of your athletic training, you want to improve your cardio system, but instead of doing traditional boring aerobics you want to do strength cardio training like barbell complexes, high intensity circuits, and Tabatas.
Again, you’ll be shifting your focus from the pump to raising your metabolism. With the pump it’s easy to tell when you’re feeling it, but how do you know if you’re elevating this elusive thing called the metabolism?
If your heart is pounding, you’re hunched over and speaking in one-word sentences, you probably worked out intensely enough to blast your metabolism. I bet you won’t see too many people gasping for air like this at your gym. In fact the only places you’ll usually see people hyperventilating like this are on a professional athletic field, track, court, ring, or octagon.
When you raise your metabolic rate, you’ll activate the hormones in your body to burn fat and build muscle by releasing Testosterone and human growth hormone.
Your hormones are the key to improving your body composition. The right hormones tell your metabolism to store fat in your body or burn fat by raising your EPOC levels. The pump, on the other hand, will almost have no effect on your metabolism. Why? The studies have shown that single-body part training won’t affect your resting metabolic rate. Only intense full-body workouts will get you the neuroendocrine response so important to remodeling your body.
I don’t miss the pump anymore. Once you see your fat incinerating, you won’t either.
4 – Train explosively
When I was training to get big most of my lifting tempos were slow – at times, extra slow with a concentric count up to 10. I thought by lifting this slow, I could feel the muscle more and as a result, they’d grow more.
As I started to learn how to train more like an athlete than a bodybuilder, I had to change the speed of my lifts and movements. I had to lift faster. Why? When you lift a heavy load at fast tempos, you’ll recruit your fast twitch muscle fibers. The fast twitch fibers are the ones that grow the most and the ones you need to cultivate the most if you want to develop into a muscular athlete.
When I was bodybuilding and doing mostly isolation work, I was working my slow twitch muscles. The slow twitch muscles are your small muscle fibers and the most resistant to growth.
When I say you need to lift fast, I don’t mean you move the load with bad form or with light weights. Strict form and full range of motion is essential. It’s not the literal speed that’s important, but the intent of moving the load as fast as you can that makes the difference in the recruitment of your fast twitch muscles and the change in your body composition.
For years, momentum was a bad word in my bodybuilding vocabulary. Swinging a heavy dumbbell up using momentum was a sign of a cheat rep. However, for some explosive movements, using momentum is a good thing. Learning how to accelerate momentum can help you generate even more explosive power.
For example, in a combination hybrid move like a front squat to an overhead press, you want to use the momentum of your legs to drive the bar up as quickly as possible. Again, you’re learning to use your body as one powerful unit instead of a collection of isolated muscle parts.
For those of you who have experience with Olympic lifts, you can add them to your full-body routine. However, if you don’t, just stay with your full-body routine and concentrate on lifting the load faster than you normally do when bodybuilding.
Another bodybuilding habit that you must break while starting to lift explosively is to stop looking at yourself in the mirror while training. Looking at yourself slows down your velocity.
5 – Get your running shoes on
Just about every bodybuilder I know hates to run. I was one of them. When I first started to do conditioning training, long distance road work was the norm. Now new studies have shown that long distance running shouldn’t be part of your conditioning regimen. Regular runs of 5 miles or more can zap your strength and eat away at your muscles.
Remember that your hormones control your body composition and overtraining with running will cause your body to release the wrong hormone, namely cortisol, the muscle-wasting hormone.
I know most of you are relieved to hear this and think you don’t have to run, but don’t think you can sit on your ass. You’ve still got to sprint.
Sprinting is one of best whole-body movements for overall conditioning. You’ll lose fat and build powerful, muscular legs. And since it’s a full-body explosive movement, you’ll activate fat burning and muscle building hormones.
Check out by Lee Boyce’s article about sprinting. Sprinting is painful, but a must. The best part of sprinting is that it doesn’t last too long; 30 seconds or less at maximum effort is all you need. If you don’t sprint, I don’t see how you ever really can achieve elite conditioning.
Once outside, sprint as fast you can for 100 yards or less. The distance isn’t important, but the intensity of your run is. Go all out. Remember you’re targeting your metabolism so you want your heart rate to be supercharged.
When you add sprints to your conditioning, start off slowly and work yourself up to 10 runs. For those of you who are really resistant to sprinting, don’t think of sprinting as cardio or running, but as part of your athletic training. Shift your mental perception of traditional cardio and looking like an emaciated marathon runner and realize that sprinting will build muscular legs.
For those of you who suffer from muscle-loss phobia like me, just think of how muscular world class sprinters are. Visualizing a better, leaner body from sprinting will make the trip down to the track much easier.
6 – Rebel against the machine
During the later years of my bodybuilding life, the majority of my workouts took place on machines. No wonder the only gains I made back then were mostly in my gut!
Machines suck for many reasons. Besides moving only in one plane and limiting your range of motion, machines don’t allow you to use your core or stabilizer muscles.
Training and developing your stabilizer muscles are important for whole-body compound movements like squats, deadlifts, sprinting, and just about every athletic move out there. Think of your core as a secondary role player. The stronger it is, the more powerful you are in strength moves.
One of the best ways to develop your core is by doing full-body workouts using GPP (general physical preparedness) conditioning tools and avoiding machines that restrict your full range of motion. There are a great variety of strength and conditioning tools to choose from. Just don’t go wild like I did and run up your credit card.
Start small and don’t rush when stocking up on your new toys. I suggest staying in your salary range and purchasing one new item a month. A medicine ball, jump rope, and a sledgehammer won’t break the bank. Kettlebells are affordable if you don’t order them online and have to pay the shipping.
You can get tires to throw and larger ones to flip at junkyards and tire stores. Check online and you’ll find easy tutorials on how to make a Bulgarian bag and a sandbag. The T-Nation forum featured easy and effective substitutions for the prowler. Having an arsenal of conditioning tools is the trademark of the anti-bodybuilding athlete.
All these conditioning toys have one thing in common – you should train with them for full body, explosive training involving your core as much as possible. Compared to being stuck sitting or even lying down in a machine, these general physical preparedness tools challenge you to train with full range movement in all three dimensions.
So avoid those useless machines, except for the occasional car. Automobiles are great for pushing and they put a hell of lot of pressure on your core, too. At my level, Japanese cars fit the bill, but if you’re a bad ass go push around an SUV.
7 – Food as gasoline
No doubt the best thing about trying to get big is the bulking part. For me, I was constantly bulking up so it gave me the excuse to always eat. At times, I was force feeding myself with up to 100 grams of protein every 2 to 3 hours. For years, I ate pounds of ground meat. I had to eat a dozen eggs every day. I had to take 20 liver tablets every 3 hours. You all know the drill.
If I didn’t ingest a high amount of protein everyday, I felt like my chest shrunk down a shirt size. Seriously, this is how mentally sick my perception of myself was and how mega amounts of food were like a heroin fix to me.
I still believe an athlete should eat protein with every meal and snack, but not the huge amounts that I was swallowing.
Free yourself from the need to be a slave to protein all day long. Doesn’t the thought of not having to eat another can of tuna for the rest of your life sound tempting? If not, you’re way more mentally insane than I was.
As you make the switch from eating to grow huge muscles to eating to build powerful muscles or to get in shape, try to make healthier and cleaner food choices. In your pursuit of becoming an elite conditioned athlete, you’ll grow to understand the relationship between food and performance very fast.
After a high intensity barbell complex workout, you’ll feel the effects of the trans fat that you’re coughing up from that bag of chips you had the night before. If you vomit after a couple of sprints, you’ll think twice about eating fried chicken as a pre-workout snack the next time.
What naturally happened to my clients and I is that we found ourselves craving fruits and plenty of veggies the day before our conditioning work. We also learned instinctively to load up on our glycogen levels so that we could power through our workout.
When you see yourself turning down the temptation to eat that crap that you normally eat, give yourself props. It develops your mental discipline. Mental discipline is the key and you must view your meals as gasoline instead of something that will immediately gratify your senses.
8 – Take it as a compliment
Bodybuilders are notoriously known for fishing for compliments. A normal conversation for meatheads sounds something like this:
- Meathead #1: “You’re looking big.”
- Meathead #2: “You too. Your arms are looking huge.”
- Meathead #1: “Thanks. What are you doing for your legs? They’re humungous!”
Sound familiar? This type of sad little conversation constitutes 75% of the conversation overheard at any bodybuilding gym. I know because I was guilty of it when I went to the gym. I was always looking for validation from my buddies. I was even great at lying and telling anybody how big he looked, even when he was a pencil neck. Hearing those words, “You’re looking big,” sure went a long way in feeding my arm workouts when I heard them.
So when my body started to lean out and I started getting in shape, I wasn’t prepared for the lack of “looking huge” comments from my peers. It was difficult. Hearing that I was “looking big” was my identity for 20 years. This is who I wanted to be and who I thought I was.
So when the lack of wow comments about my size switched to, “You’re looking cut,” or, “You’re looking good,” I took these comments as another way of saying I was shrinking to a bag of bones.
I’m not going to lie to you – this transition was very difficult to my self-esteem, so I’m warning you, be prepared. Some of you will have serious withdrawal problems and will do anything to hear those words, “You’re looking big,” again.
Just don’t slit your wrists. It’s just part of the journey to becoming a well oiled strength and conditioning machine. For me, even though I was losing weight I was actually burning a lot of fat. At the same time, my body became more muscular. I wasn’t big like I was before, but I wasn’t fat like I was, either.
My muscle-to-fat ratio really started to become noticeable. I stopped looking for compliments as I was too busy talking to peers and casual acquaintances at the gym about how I was training differently. The more I started talking about how I moved away from single-part bodybuilding training and methods and now doing heavy compound lifts and high intensity anaerobic training, the more I became comfortable with my new identity.
My fixation with “being big” was finally over. I was now obsessed with becoming “super fit.”
The other day, I heard someone describe me as “being buff.” It’s still not the same as “being big,” but hey, I’ll take it.
I have a friend that’s having a rough time giving up his bodybuilding habits while trying to whip himself into shape and looking like a MMA fighter. After trying it out for a month, he gave up and went back to his love of getting big.
Good for him. This isn’t an anti-bodybuilding message. If you have the potential to still get huge, I say, lucky you. Go for it.
I wrote this article for those who are looking for a change of pace with their training or just wanted to try something a little different. It doesn’t mean you have to give up what you’re doing completely. On the contrary, experiment with some of these ideas and incorporate what works for you and takes you to your present athletic and aesthetic goals.
Do a little here and there. Try to combine both worlds or, if it appeals to you, make a commitment to just do the conditioning training.
The main problem I have with the fitness world is that we try to label or put titles on how we train. In the final analysis, no system or tool is superior.
It comes down to one thing…
Just train hard.