This is a little embarrassing to admit, but I was an obsessed bodybuilder for about six years of my life. My training was completely different about twenty years ago. One of the key things I learned through all these years is that functional strength training and bodybuilding training are radically different. Yes, the way I used to train was outstanding for hypertrophy, but not much else. Let me explain exactly what I mean.
My Typical Bodybuilding Routine
As a former competitive bodybuilder, the sport was a life-changing and rewarding experience for me. The six years I competed were an amazing time of what I thought was “hard core” training. You know what? It was “hard core” training, just in a very different way than what the StrongFirst readers may be used to.
At the peak of my bodybuilding career, I spent four hours in the gym, six days a week. That’s right, 24 hours out of every week were dedicated to high-volume lifting with my training partner, who was training for the Teenage Mr. America. As you can probably guess, we did a lot of sets, reps, and isolation exercises.
I still remember an example of a chest workout we used to do twice a week:
- Four sets of flat barbell bench
- Four sets of incline barbell bench
- Four sets of dumbbell flat bench
- Four sets of incline dumbbell bench
- Finish off with four sets of either a cable fly or dumbbell fly
You may notice that all the exercises were done while lying down on a bench. This is not very functional, obviously.
After our chest training, we’d proceed to our back program, usually 20 to 24 sets, and then abs or calves to finish. That was 24 work sets, not including warm-ups. Rep ranges were in the 8 to 12 range for everything. You can see why the workouts were four hours in duration. The word “overtraining” should be coming to mind here.
There were many problems with this type of training, but it served the purpose, at the time. This was typical bodybuilding training. This was not strength training.
What I Train Like Now That I Know Kettlebells
I still train for muscular hypertrophy, but it’s totally different for me these days. I absolutely want to increase lean muscle mass as much as I possibly can (once a bodybuilder, always a bodybuilder), but my training protocols have completely transformed. A major contributor to this transformation was the simple discovery of the kettlebell. It was the tool that helped to change my entire training philosophy, as soon as I learned how to use it properly.
Instead of 24 hours of training per week, I’m down to four hours and usually less than that. That’s four days a week of one-hour training sessions, where the actual training ranges from thirty to 45 minutes, with the other time being spent on joint mobility and technique work. That’s an 83% reduction in my weekly training time. I’ve also become a technique fanatic for the primary benefit of training with maximum safety, efficiency, and results.
If you remember one thing from this article, remember this: proper technique combined with smart programming equals optimal results, period.
For me, long gone are the days of hours of training, and double digit sets and reps. Today, it comes down to just three simple modalities: the kettlebell, the barbell, and bodyweight applications. A typical training session has five fundamental movements and usually includes such movements as a hinge, squat, push, pull, and carry.
A training session today usually looks something like this:
- Barbell Deadlift, 2 warm-ups then 3×5 (pull)
- Double Kettlebell Military Press, 2×5 (push)
- Barbell or Double Kettlebell Front Squat, 2-3×5 (squat)
- Kettlebell Swing, 3×50 (hinge)
- Kettlebell Get-up, 2-5 reps (plus one)
- Racked Walk (or other loaded carry) for distance (carry)
Note: I like to use the term training session as opposed to workout. Anyone can “work out.” A “training session” means you are working to improve and build your skills. Keep this in mind.
Take notice of the differences from my previous bodybuilding workouts. All of these exercises are total body movements, nothing lying down or even seated. All exercises are a total body integration with no isolation exercises. This is how the body is designed to be used, as a system.
The big benefits? Less time, total body integration, functional movement, and skill development, just to name a few. All are major exercises that work the big muscle groups, stimulate the maximal hormonal effects, and have the greatest systemic benefits. This is important. We get stronger, we move better, we feel better, all with the added bonus of gaining muscular hypertrophy.
I change my protocols, rotate different periodization approaches, and sometimes perform more volume to match my training objectives. But, my primary goals now are improving strength and skill mastery. All the other goals come after that. Training the way I used to for bodybuilding did one thing really well—it was excellent for increasing muscular hypertrophy, but it lacked so many other things.
Now, in addition to increasing muscle mass, I have countless other benefits and I understand what it is to truly train for strength and performance. Pure strength training is king, and all goals can be accomplished by being stronger. In my early years, I didn’t realize what I know today, that you must be strong first.