Bodybuilding Mythology

by Mark Rippetoe | March 02, 2022

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“Bodybuilding” means training for appearance. Aesthetics is the basis of bodybuilding. From Wikipedia (a perfect place to start): “Aesthetics, or esthetics (/ɛsˈθɛtɪks, iːs-, æs-/), is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of beauty and taste, as well as the philosophy of art (its own area of philosophy that comes out of aesthetics). It examines aesthetic values, often expressed through judgments of taste.” Bodybuilding – especially for novices – is primarily concerned with one's own perception of one's appearance. Only for the more advanced competitor does bodybuilding become concerned with other people's (the judges) perception of appearance.

Perception is always subjective – again from Wikipedia: “based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.” This is why bodybuilding is not a sport – there are no objective criteria against which to judge the competitors, and there are no actions being performed in the contest that lie outside the context of subjective aesthetics. “Who looks best” is not a sport, regardless of what the contestant does to get prepared for the contest.

Yet bodybuilding has had an out-sized impact on the rest of us who train with weights for completely different reasons. Most guys my age were first exposed to strength training through the bodybuilding magazines, and the Weider people were experts at marketing their products to gullible young people who had literally nowhere else than other bodybuilding magazines to learn anything about lifting weights. We were taught to think in terms of muscle bellies and their anatomy, muscle groups and the exercises that used them, and the effects that training all these separate muscle groups would have on our appearance.

Analyzing movement patterns and the strengthening of movement patterns was never even a consideration.

Quite literally, strength training as a stand-alone discipline had not been invented. There was either bodybuilding, Olympic lifting, or the newly-minted sport of powerlifting, and that was about it. And the vast majority of the paper and ink was devoted to bodybuilding. Like having alcoholic parents, it's something that's hard to outgrow.

Powerlifting provided the way out of the bodybuilding mindset, since it became very difficult to ignore the fact that all of the 275lb weight class at the 1983 Senior Nationals had a better physique than Lou Ferrigno, the “guest poser” for the event. I was backstage at the meet, and it was quite obvious that Lou knew it too – he became very scarce after his little 50-second posing routine.

The emphasis in powerlifting was the three lifts, which happen to coincide with natural movement patterns of the human body. While giving no consideration to exercising any of their constituent muscle groups and simply training for the greatest strength in the movement pattern, an amazing thing happened: dramatic physique improvement.

The lesson remains, and it's easier than ever to learn now: if you strengthen the movement pattern itself, the muscle groups that comprise its kinetic chain will get bigger as they strengthen, and will do so as dictated by their anatomical position in the kinetic chain – in perfect proportion to their function within the movement pattern. You don't have to do wrist curls and seated calf raises to grow forearms and calves – you just have to squat, bench press, deadlift, press, and do some chins, since forearms and calves are also working in these movements. You don't have to babysit your soleus or your brachioradialis to keep them in perfect proportion to your gastrocnemius or your biceps long head – your skeleton does this for you.

Nonetheless, the mythology that arose over the decades of bodybuilding mis-information will not loosen its grip on the fitness industry. This bears some discussion, since even you may still harbor ideas that soaked into your young brain while you didn't know any better.

Probably the most serious error in bodybuilding-think is the complete omission of the reality of levels of training advancement – the distinction between novice, intermediate, and advanced programming. This is the direct result of the marketing of the championship physique by the magazines. The man on the cover sold the magazine and the supplements he took. Your narrow 19-year-old ass wanted to look like the man on the cover, so you took his supplements and you followed his program even though you had never lifted weights at all. Ronnie's program he used to win his 3rd Olympia was presented in the magazines, and you followed it, under the impression that if you want to look like an advanced bodybuilder, you have to train like an advanced bodybuilder.

This is one of those things that seems perfectly obvious, but is completely wrong anyway. Here's the first of several Awful Truths: champion bodybuilders are born, not trained. The guys whose names you know were all – without exception – born with thin skin (and the natural tendency to not deposit subcutaneous adipose tissue), long muscle bellies, symmetrical abs, big calves, normal anthropometric proportions, and the ability to respond very well to performance enhancing drugs. These characteristics are genetically controlled, and all of the training and diet in the world cannot produce what is just not there. I cannot play in the NBA, but less obvious to me was the fact that I could never have been a contest bodybuilder.

It was important to avoid this Awful Truth: you can't sell programs and supplements to kids who can never develop your physique. Instead of starting out with 3 sets of 5 across in the squat, bench, and press, driving your deadlift up with one set of 5, and adding a little weight to every exercise each workout, eating intelligently for recovery and weight gain, ignoring the assistance exercises, they sold you Dorian/Ronnie/Arnold. Instead of progress, they sold you perfection, which very few can have.

The next Awful Truth is that training for hypertrophy is not dependent on high-rep sets with little rest. It is dependent on muscle growth, which is facilitated by forcing the use of heavier weights over time, and far more efficiently accomplished with sets of 5 reps. Muscles get stronger by increasing their cross-sectional area, by adding contractile protein. I'm not interested in the precise mechanism, because I don't have to understand the details of the mechanism to observe the phenomenon. But I've observed the process of getting bigger for decades – if you drive your squat up from 135 to 405x5x3 and your deadlift from 185 to 495x5, you got a lot bigger. Because if you didn't grow bigger by eating enough protein and calories, you never got to these numbers. And these are not crazy numbers that require the use of drugs, but rather normally accessible progress for normal males with a couple of years of correct training on sets of 5.

The process of getting stronger makes you bigger. You already know this. So stop pretending that light weights and high reps are how you get huge. You don't want to train heavy? Fine with me. But doing light weights for high reps gets you stuck. You know this too.

The shapes of your individual muscles – referred to as “muscularity” in the bodybuilding media – are also genetically controlled. If your deltoids do not form a “cap” over your biceps and triceps, then 13 billion dumbbell flyes/cable flyes/dumbbell presses are not going to make them do so. Like pretty calves, symmetrical abs, and long biceps that leave no gap at the elbow, they are genetic, and they can't be trained into existence.

You have a little more control over your bodyfat, but not your appearance in a low-bodyfat state. If you are 30% bodyfat, lose some bodyfat by cleaning up your diet. Your bodyfat percentage has very little to do with your training, and almost everything to do with your diet. Dropping from 30% to 18% can be done by virtually all young men, and most young women can get below 22% without existential sacrifice.

But very low sub-Q bodyfat as seen on contest bodybuilders is again a genetically controlled characteristic. Some people are just born with thin skin and very little fat under it. Your skinfold thickness is a very good proxy for your total bodyfat, and that's why it's used to measure this parameter with a high degree of accuracy. Normal human bodyfat is about 16-18% for athletic males, higher for females – humans have evolved to store bodyfat under the skin. It is perfectly normal physiology to have a layer of fat under the skin, for insulation against cold weather and padding against blows. At 18%, you can drop to 11-12% with a lot of attention paid to diet, but you won't get to the “shredded” levels you see in the magazines, which are 6-8% depending on body weight – and which are abnormal physiologically. If you are not walking around right now at 12%, you're not going to be at 7% for the Big Show.

Such low bodyfat levels are abnormal for human physiology, and are almost completely dependent on a genetic predisposition for thin skin and poor adipose storage capacity. The pictures you see of The Greats that are burned into your mind are snapshots: a very narrow glimpse into a very-temporary (maybe only hours-long) condition of dehydration, glycogen-full muscle bellies, low bodyfat, oil and tan, and good lighting directors. This is where the media boys have done their jobs.

The organization built by Joe Weider is a masterpiece of marketing psychology and technology. Having seamlessly transitioned into the digital age, it remains a formidable presence in shaping the popular perception of fitness. Joe developed a set of 31 training ideas he referred to as “The Weider Principles” (Joe was not shy) that formed the basis for his approach to bodybuilding. Most of them had been in use since the early 1900s, but Joe collected them and gave them a catchy name. You will recognize many of them, since they had become the language of workout organization before Joe's naming of them collectively. A few are very useful. Most of them just make you sore.

Selling soreness was one of Joe's stellar achievements. Soreness is pain. Pain is cathartic. Pain is necessary for atonement. Soreness means accomplishment. Soreness means sacrifice. Soreness means a goal reached. Its onset provides almost immediate gratification – 18-21 hours is pretty immediate – and your internal status is elevated by the visceral sense that you did something inherently good. Changing your workouts all the time (the Weider Muscle Confusion Principle predated CrossFit and P90X by decades), and lots of ways to emphasize the eccentric aspects of the exercises produced a system with soreness inherent in its execution. 

Did it make you bigger? If you ate enough, yes, but the Novice Effect explains this. Did you get sore? Yes. Then soreness made you bigger, right? No. It's another one of those things that seems perfectly obvious, but is completely wrong anyway. And yet most of the exercising public attributes training progress to soreness. Weider did his job.

Our novices quite regularly do the Starting Strength novice program for 6-8 months without being very sore at all after the first 4 workouts, while far more than doubling their strength and continuing to get bigger and more muscular the whole time.

I'm really sorry, but lots of what you think you know about strength training and getting bigger is bullshit. The truth is seldom what it seems to be, especially if the people telling you this “truth” are selling programs. Hypertrophy is a side-effect of strength. Focus on lifting heavier weights for sets of 5 in the basic exercises and eating enough to continue getting stronger, don't be distracted by conditioning or assistance exercises until it's appropriate (which won't be for quite a while), and notice the fact that as your numbers go up so does the size of your legs, hips, chest, arms, and neck.  

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