Bodybuilding has lied to you, and that’s why you’re still skinny.
2010 January 11
By Matt Perryman
Over the last say five, six years, I’ve pretty well managed to wall myself off from gym culture. I do lift in a commercial gym, though I have very little contact with the people there – unless you count staring in slack-jawed amazement at some of the antics and stupidity as contact. I don’t, personally.
Most of the people I talk to in person are real lifters of some sort or another, guys that like powerlifting and strongman and Highland games. The manly kind of sports that you can drink beer with. We don’t always agree 100% on the details, but we also know that the details don’t matter and that in every way that matters, we’re on the same page.
Online, I’ve almost entirely stayed away from sites like bodybuilding.com or the beloved T-mag precisely because they encourage so much of that Bro mentality – that faux-macho wannabe outlook that relies on being ‘edgy’ and ‘hardcore’ and ‘latching on to the nuts of this year’s popular guru’.
Since taking myself out of all that, I’ve developed what I can only describe as selective amnesia, because I’ve genuinely been surprised at some of the stupid that’s out there – and it’s layered, complex stupid. This can range from the mostly harmless repetition of Bro-mantras like the beloved ’shock the body to keep it guessing’, right on up to full on ‘I still weigh 60kg and can’t put on weight but let me tell you how to do things’.
I’ve discussed the abstract concept of stupidity before, and it’s an interesting thing. Stupidity isn’t just the absence of intelligence or information; it’s the active rejection of learning that works by convincing the stupid person that s/he doesn’t need to learn in the first place. Of course stupid and ignorant are relative terms, but I’m of the firm belief that most anybody can be coached or trained in the gym if they’re given enough guidance.
One thing that’s always struck me about the guys that are ’stuck’ – can’t get over 75kg, bench won’t go past 90kg – is their own lack of self-awareness. It should be simple to understand that, if your current behaviors aren’t moving you towards your goals, then you’re going to have to change your behaviors.
If what you’re doing isn’t working, you’re going to have to do something else.
This is such a staggeringly simple concept that I just can’t believe people don’t get it. But it happens every single damn day. If you go to any of the big busy forums online, you’ll see one question asked more than anything else: “why can’t I gain weight?” This question will come in different flavors and styles, but it always remains.
You see it in any commercial gym. Next time you’re in such a place, have a look at how many skinny-looking guys are walking around in the weights area. If you come back in a year, assuming they haven’t quit, none of them will look any different.
I drew up a flowchart outline to give a quick rundown of the thought process that these guys go through:
1. Recognize that I’m underweight, out of shape, and weak. Make a commitment to be at the gym five days a week.
2. Read a magazine with a big muscular guy on the cover. Find his workout.
3. Do the workout from the magazine, as long as it’s for: chest, shoulders, arms, or back. Skip legs because you run a lot.
4. Gain a little weight because of beginner gains. Don’t change your diet to increase protein or calorie intake.
5. Stall out because you’re not eating enough and because you insist on doing bodybuilder’s routine. Body weight levels off around 70-75kg and bench is stuck somewhere between 60-80kg.
6. Decide that you’re ‘cutting’ now, since you want abs for summer. If you’re really determined to get big, skip 6 and go to 7.
7. Ask the big guy in the gym for some steroids. Go on a cycle of test and dbol even though you’ve been lifting for a year and have no idea how to eat or train.
8. Get ‘good gains’ on your cycle, which is really just water-bloat and not gains at all, but you believe it’s gains because the scale goes up and all the other idiots tell you it’s gains.
9. Come off cycle and lose all your gains the water weight. Strength and stamina in the gym go back to shit because the only reason you could sustain your workout was because of the juice.
10. Go back to 7. If you’re now depressed and ‘over it,’ go back to 6.
That about sums it up I think. I’d guess that most every guy at your gym, with only a few exceptions that will be obvious, is stuck somewhere in this flowchart. Beginners seem to repeat steps 1-5 without fail, and guys that have more than a year or so under their belts are either bouncing between that or ‘cutting for the beach’. A few more will go on to repeat the endless loop of steroid cycling without any real muscle gains to speak of.
Why does this loop keep happening, and why do so many, almost 100%, get stuck in it? There are two fundamental reasons:
1) You don’t know how to eat. Popular bodybuilding wisdom encourages low-calorie diets of ‘clean’ foods, usually chicken and broccoli. That’s all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t add muscle to skinny bodies.
2) You don’t know how to train. Popular bodybuilding and ‘general fitness’ wisdom encourages you to split your training into 3-6 days a week, with each session devoted to one body part. That’s all fine and dandy, but it’s kinda missing the point.
These are hard truths, but you have to accept them. If you’re a skinny kid, the worst thing you can do is listen to what’s in the magazines and listen to what gym-culture tells you to do.
Gym-culture says you need to split up your body and focus on each muscle group to grow. That’s a load of horseshit, because for every guy you see that’s big or strong and uses that system, the majority of guys following it fail completely and spectacularly. And then instead of thinking ‘gee, maybe I should re-think this strategy,’ they either give up or start popping dbol like candy.
Then they grow, mainly because of water retention; and then once they come off, they lose all their gains water. That’s a productive strategy.
If you want the best gains, you need to focus on training regularly and training to get strong. Strength is size. Remember that. Repeat it. Say it out loud. Strength is size.
If you’re a big guy that uses body-part splits, by all means keep at it. If you enjoy it and think it’s productive, I’m not going to say you’re wrong. If you’re a skinny kid that’s hit a plateau, I’m telling you there’s a better way to do things.
The bodybuilding paradigm goes back to the 1970s and 1980s, stretching back to Joe Weider’s philosophy on pumping up the muscle with endless volume. This only got worse in the 80s when everybody was on the juice and could grow on the super-high volume splits that are still with us today.
A bodybuilding session will have something like 4-5 exercises per muscle group, with the premise being that you must hammer and grind and ultimately defeat the muscle by bludgeoning it with set after set. That’s not strength training; that’s endurance exercise. It may work for you as a beginner, but the biggest effect this training has is 1) inflaming your muscles and pumping them up right after the workout; and 2) bloating them up by increasing the amount of water, glycogen, and other goodies stored in there.
Needless to say, if you don’t have muscle to pump in the first place, this isn’t going to work very well. Leave the volume-training to big guys with a strength foundation.
Muscles respond most favorably to heavy, high-tension movements; and no, you do not have to work every muscle directly for them to grow. This is because muscle groups overlap and fill many of the same roles. Yes, this means that once you’ve worked the hell out of your bench press, your triceps probably don’t need that much work.
Bodybuilding has so poisoned the well that most people don’t even realize that they can train with any other system. If someone wants to grow, then they default to the five-day body-part split. I’m telling you right now: any ‘bodybuilding’ training should be secondary to your basic strength training; and only then if you’re really convinced you need it. If you’re 75kg and bitching that you can’t get any bigger, you probably don’t need it.
What you need instead if a basic program that focuses on getting stronger. ‘I don’t want to be a powerlifter,’ you say. ‘I want to build a good physique with mass and symmetry.’ The funny part is that most people that say that have no idea what it even means as it comes out of their mouths.
Strength is size. If you want ‘mass’, you need to get stronger with the big lifts. If you want ’symmetry’, well, you need to talk to your parents. Anything else is a function of leanness. To many would-be bodybuilders just don’t realize this, and they stay both small and weak as a result. At least until they go on the sauce.
If you’ve already got a decent base of strength from years of training, you might benefit from this lighter bodybuilding stuff. You might even want to play with the split routines for a change of pace. You just have no business following that kind of routine when you don’t have that foundation to build on.
Now what about diet? This is the other pillar of gaining muscle and body-weight, and it’s just as much of a spectacular failure for most people.
The gym-culture says to eat every 2-3 hours to ‘keep the metabolic fires burning’. Right. The diet itself revolves around lean meats (almost always chicken), green veggies (almost always broccoli), and ‘clean carbs’ with oats being the number one contender.
Okay look, that’s fine if you’re already big and trying to maintain some degree of leanness. If you’re a little dude, just give it a rest. Seriously. I don’t care about your damn abs if you’re bitching about being stuck at 70kg for the last year.
Shut up and go eat a cheeseburger.
There’s nothing wrong with eating lean meats and ‘clean carbs’ later on, once you’ve actually gotten strong and added some muscle. I want you to try eating enough to grow with that diet, though. Smaller guys will probably need to push 4000 kcals per day to grow. That’s a lot of chicken and broccoli and oats. Really dedicated guys can do it, but I’m telling you it’s pointless macho bullshit. There are easier ways.
Ways like pizza.
If you want a solid plan to grow without turning into a total fatass, a strategy to which I can relate, then set your daily calorie intake to around 18 times your body weight in pounds as a starting point. Set protein to at least 1 gram per lb first. Put carbs at maybe 2-2.5 times body weight, depending on your preference, and then make up the remainder from fat. The actual type of food doesn’t matter so much; if you can fit in cheeseburgers, fit them in. Cheeseburgers want to be eaten. Just remember that the numbers come first.
As to how many meals to eat, if you’re bulking you never want to be hungry. That sounds like one of those hard-liner absolutist statements, but there is truth to it. I’d make it a point to at least get protein every few hours to keep amino acid levels high.
Depending on how sloppy you want to get, you may find that you want to eat more than this. That’s fine too. Just remember that to be realistic, it’s probably not the best of ideas to add 50 lbs of fat in order to bump your squat 10 lbs. I’m all for bulking, but experience has taught me that bulking out of control is counterproductive. If you’re going to do it, do it right – make sure you’re actually adding strength and adding muscle.