What's the difference between strength training and bodybuilding?
The biggest difference is in your training goals. Strength training is all about lifting the heaviest weight you can lift, and it is less concerned with the size and shape of the muscles. Bodybuilding is concerned with the size and shape of the muscles, and less about the absolute strength. They both have there place, and some people alternate between cycles of strength training and body building. That's great. Just remember that this forum is about strength training, so when you want to switch to bodybuilding you might be better served by a forum that specializes in that. You will get bigger with strength training, and you will get stronger with bodybuilding; but the focus of each discipline is different. Strength training will build strong muscles, but they won't be huge. Body building will make your muscles bigger, but they won't get as strong.
If you've never lifted a weight before in your life, but you want big muscles, I recommend starting with strength training rather than bodybuilding. The reason has to do with the fact you need to establish a body to build. A word you are going to hear in bodybuilding circles is hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is the process of making your cells bigger, kind of like filling a balloon. The problem is that it doesn't add more cells, so once the balloon is at its largest size it can't get any bigger. A strength trainer will be building more muscle to support lifting heavy things. It's like getting more balloons to fill. The strength training will increase the amount of muscle you have, although it will be very lean and dense. Now I hope no bodybuilders get offended at the analogy I used, but I couldn't come up with a better one. In short, you are going to realize your goals more quickly if you get all your beginner gains with strength training and then fine tune those results with body building. There's no reason you can't go back and forth between the two disciplines.
OK, so what do I need to do strength training?
The bare minimum prerequisites are:
- a body
- heavy things to lift
- a barbell (preferably Olympic standard)
- weight plates
- power rack
- room to do your lifts (most of us go to a gym that has all this stuff)
- A plan to follow
What does a strength training program look like?
The exact set of lifts and the order will be a little different from program to program, but the following principles will be the same across all of them:
- Compound lifts that recruit as many muscles working together as they can
- Working out 3x per week
- At least a full day of rest between each session
- Progressive loading (you are increasing weight on a schedule)
- Parallel squats. This is the foundational lift for all of strength training. You will learn to love them.
- 5x5. That's 5 sets of 5 reps. While not every strength training program uses that, most do. It's older than Reg Park, and no-one knows where it originally came from. We just know it works.
- Squats. Don't kid yourself, any routine that doesn't have squats doesn't build strength.
- Overhead Press (or simply called the Press)
- Bench Press (many argue it isn't as good as the press, but it's an official power lifting technique so most routines include it)
- Barbell Rows
- Olympic lifts (Clean, Jerk, Snatch)
- Power cleans. Like a clean without the front squat.
- Power snatch. Like a snatch without the overhead squat.
- Dips. Later they will be weighted dips
- Pullups/Chinups. Later they will be weighted
- Reverse Pushups
I'm a complete beginner, and I don't know how to choose a program. What should I do?
While the most important thing is to get started, anything you do now will help you get stronger. There are a few options you can go with:
- Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength. It's a solid program that gives you good results.
- Adam Wathan's Average F'n Program. It's home grown with our own Adam Wathan. You only have to worry about a pair of main lifts and one assistance exercise.
- Medhi's StrongLifts 5x5. Medhi is a marketer, and maybe not the best guy to get to know, but his program works. Many of us got started with it.
- StrongLifts 5x5 is simple, but has a lot of volume. If you are an older lifter, or have problems recovering, it may not be the best solution for you.
- Starting Strength has a lot of information that will help you in the long run. There's less volume than SL 5x5 in the beginning, but it still may be tough to get through all 12 weeks depending on how heavy you started.
- The Average F'n Program has the least amount of volume. That should be a good match for older lifters to get started with. Some of the finer details are still being worked out, but it promises to be a solid starting program.
The list of guidelines here are to provide some help to pick a gym when you have a choice. Depending where you live you may only have one gym you can use, so you will have to make the best of that situation.
- Power racks. They help you perform squats safely. If they don't have power racks, they need squat racks with safeties.
- Olympic barbells. They weigh 20kg, or about 45lb.
- Bumper plates if possible. They make barbell rows and deadlifts easier. Unfortunately, finding a gym with these is not common.
- Round plates. If you have a choice between two gyms and one has hexagon plates and the other has round plates pick the round plates. Again, they help make barbell rows and deadlifts easier.
If you are working out with someone, it helps to use close fitting clothes. Baggy clothes can hide form problems that your lifting partner would be able to point out to you. Other than that, you may want to consider the following:
- Sweat pants on deadlift days. The knurls on the bar can scrape your legs when the bar is heavy
- Weightlifting shoes. The difference is that the sole is hard and does not compress. They can be expensive, so some less costly alternatives would be Chuck Taylors or lifting barefoot. Running shoes will give you an unstable platform when the bar gets heavy.
- Nothing that will restrict your movement. It's hard enough lifting heavy things, you don't want your sweaty clothes to be adding to the resistance. That usually means something that stretches.
- Nothing slippery, particularly not in your shirt. It can be hard enough to keep the bar in place when you are squatting, but if the bar slides around on your shirt because it is so friction free then you can have some problems. Favor cotton or a 50/50 blend over all synthetic clothes.
In strength training we don't look at how long you've been lifting. We look at how quickly you can recover and adapt to be stronger. A good resource that talks about this in detail would be Practical Programming for Strength Training. The general hierarchy goes something like this:
- Complete beginner: can recover and adapt in 24 hours (gains every day)
- Novice: can recover and adapt in 48-72 hours (gains every other day)
- Intermediate: can recover and adapt in about 1 week (gains every week)
- Advanced: can recover and adapt in about 1 month (gains monthly)
- Elite: multi-month recovery and adaptations (gains can be 2x or 1x a year)
If you are curious about what ballpark weights you might be able to lift, check out the Weightlifting Performance Standards. It's important that you don't read too much into these standards, but they are a good way to help you figure out if your goals are reasonable or not. I wrote something more in depth about using the strength standards here: Applying the Strength Standards to You.
Now, don't feel discouraged if you can't lift what is listed under "Untrained" for your size and gender. You'll be surpassing that in no time at all. What's important to realize is that what's expected of strong changes with your weight. You will be getting heavier as you add on more muscle. That means the potential of what you can do will also increase.
Just Say No to Steroids
Look, it's clear you can get stronger and build larger muscles with steroids. However, they come at a significant cost to your body. Folks like Reg Park could bench press 500lb before steroids were invented. You'll have a lot more respect when you lift heavy things natural than when you are using steroids. The bottom line is that your body naturally produces hormones and and uses muscles within a certain range of proportions. Isolation exercises and steroids will knock that balance way off, which causes other problems. Besides, you're a beginner now. There is no reason to try to eke out that last bit of performance when you haven't even maxed out what you can do raw.
When you start down the path of steroids, it will give you the confidence to lift in ways that are not normal, and even detrimental to your body. It's best to focus on technique and learning how your body is designed to move. You want exercises that recruit as many different muscles as possible in its movement so that your strength is balanced. It also wreaks havoc on your body, and can cause kidney problems among other health issues. If you are curious, start googling for the detrimental affects of steroids. You'll soon realize that lifting raw (or natural) is the way to go.
So, Really How Big Can I Get Without Steroids?
OK, if you really want to know how large you can get if you achieve the level of lifting that raw body building champions do then check out a summary of the study done by Casey Butt, Ph.D. on the subject. There's even a link to a calculator that does the calculations for you. You'll need three measurements: your height, your wrist circumference (just above your styloid process), and your ankle circumference (smallest point between the ankle and the calf). How accurate is it? When the formulas are applied to the same people he used for the sample, he was within a couple percentage points. As the article suggests, they are not limitations, but to exceed those numbers you have to train harder than the crowd he took the samples from. The formula will even tell you how much you will weight at a given body fat percentage. Just a note: his formulas only work for someone who is done growing. If you are young and still growing, the predictions are going to change as you get taller.
But seriously, this site is about getting strong. Who cares if your arms are 15 inches or 20 inches, all we care about is that you can lift really heavy things. Enough of the vanity talk now. If only Dr. Butt did a study for how much we would be able to lift, that would be something...
I have more questions!
That's what this forum is for. I just wanted to provide a quick introduction. I will likely expand this some more later.