Originally published on June 5, 2014
For a couple of years now I have been giving away a free PDF book entitled “Strength Training and Bodybuilding: How Different Are They?” This book explains, to my way of thinking and in no uncertain terms, how bodybuilding is a practice that is distinct from strength training. This was not a book that I ever hyped and certainly not something I thought would set the strength training world on fire. In fact, I doubted it would make a difference at all, no pun intended.
Although many hundreds of people received the book, only a few ever expressed any views on it and there are several people who absolutely loved it, to the point that they insisted I should be selling this book. If I sold it, they told me, people would take it more seriously and I would, therefore, reach more people, besides making money, etc. Well, I know that all this is true. If I promoted my books, and myself, I’d be more successful!
Or would I? Depends on how I view success. The book asks a question and then attempts to answer it. The book does not give tips on how to set your bench press on fire. It does not hand out a revolutionary new program. It does not contain a new theory or any new concepts. What it does contain is a critical analysis of how we go about and view training for strength and how this differs, in fundamental ways, from hypertrophy training. If this helps a few people realize their goals, then I consider it a success.
However, I think that the book, as a PDF download, has served its purpose. I had planned on greatly expanding it and to begin sending out this new version. Upon further thought, I have decided instead to expand the book into a series of blog posts, so that it will reach more readers. If you have read the book, you may want to ignore these articles, but just so you know, you may be missing a lot of new material.
How Different is Strength Training From Hypertrophy Training?
Every day, many new articles appear that have this as their root message: Strength training will make you look like a bodybuilder. Is it true? Are guys like me wasting our time talking about strength as if it is something different than bodybuilding? Should I just use the term weight training? Or resistance training? Why do these terms even exist, if it’s all the same?
There was a time when training for strength and training for muscle mass and bodybuilding was one and the same. The much-discussed strongmen of old were the bodybuilders of their day. Many of those who traveled around performing feats of strength also posed to show their physiques.
Oldtime Strongmen Versus Today’s Bodybuilders and Strength Athletes
The strength world waxes nostalgic about the “old-time” strongmen and many seem to think that they knew secrets that we have lost in today’s training practices. Well, it is probably true. There probably are some insights and practices that we’d do well to rediscover. But before you get too caught up, realize that strength training is an ancient practice. Everything that is old tends to get recycled into the new, and this happens over and over again.
Just because there was a time when the strength training world and the bodybuilding world were not separate, does this mean that we are wrong to treat them as separate today? Have we, in fact, made a mistake somewhere down the line? Is bodybuilding the same as strength training?
The “Science” of Strength
It is not. This is why the terms exist. I watched a World’s Strongest Man broadcast on ESPN. Phil Phister was a commentator which I was very pleased about since I admire him so much. They had a “science of strength” thing going on where they would give the athletes a score based on factors such as agility and power. Now, I am a huge fan of Strongman. Just huge. But I was a little irritated with the word “power” being used, apparently to define the factor that was “strength” or basically, brute force. And that is, in a nutshell, what strength is: The ability to produce force. When we say maximum strength, we mean producing maximum force. That’s different than power. It would be easy to explain in scientific terms just how brute strength and power differ, both in their definition and their expression. But explaining how strength training differs from bodybuilding is not so easy at all. People have a hard time seeing things that overlap as being separate pursuits at any time, and when cultural factors play into it, it is next to impossible to help people get it straight.
Ancient Strength Training
Strength training, in its purest expression, has been a pursuit since ancient Greek times, at least. You may have heard the story of Milo of Croton, for example, carrying his bull up the hill. And there was also Titormus, said to be even stronger than Milo. These are myths. However, believe it or not, there is even archaeological evidence of amazing feats of strength, such as an inscription at Olympia on a block of red sandstone. The stone weighs 315lbs and the inscription claims that Bybon lifted the stone with only one hand. There are stories of strongmen resisting the pull of horses, similar to how strongman today resist the pull of vehicles. And there is plenty of evidence of all sorts of systematic physical training, much of it with weights such as dumbbells or sandbags — no sandbags are not new, and I traced some of the history of the dumbbell in this video, where I revealed that little hand-weights were around a very long time before they began being called dumbbells.
What you will notice, in regards to ancient attitudes about physical strength, is that while a muscular appearance would have certainly been respected and prized, you’re not going to find an inscription that says the equivalent of “Dude was really swole!” It was physical STRENGTH that was prized more than the appearance of strength.
Fact is, there is very little scholarly study of the history of strength and strength sports as compared to all other sports. And the study that exists is quite new. Strength training wasn’t always held in high regard by sports coaches, as it is now. In the early 1900s and onwards, it was seen as dangerous and there was fear that weight work would make an athlete muscle bound. This has not completely gone away, as most of my readers will doubtless know. A strength athlete in those times wasn’t even considered a true athlete.
Bodybuilding and Strength Training Used to be Parallel Pursuits
What we do know is that strength training and bodybuilding used to be one and the same parallel pursuit, often spoken of under the umbrella of “physical culture.” There are plenty of sources of information about the old-time strongmen but the idea that, since they viewed the pursuit of physical fitness in a different way than we do today, and they are from long ago, they must be correct, is a mistaken view. I explored one of the ways that old-time strength athletes got it wrong in this article on breathing and rib cage expansion. I also dared to ask the question were the old-time strongmen really stronger than today’s strength athletes? In that article, I talk about the back lift, as shown in the image below of Stout Jackson performing the feat with a load of bricks.
How Did Strength Training and Bodybuilding Become Enmeshed Again?
Suffice it to say, strength training is very different from bodybuilding. Something happened on the way to the forum, so to speak, and strength training has become mish-mashed with hypertrophy training. The intentions behind this mish-mash were honorable, as owed to a backlash against the typical bodybuilding split that served as an introduction to resistance training for almost all trainees. Such training was seen as unhealthy and short-sighted. Plus it was viewed as largely inefficient for the average trainee even for mass gain.
The message was sent. You need a strength base! You need to use the big compound lifts like deadlifts and squats. Even if your end goal is purely hypertrophy starting with a thorough grounding in strength based training will facilitate those goals much better in the long term.
Some of this may be true. There are many good reasons to start with pure strength training. And when I say pure strength training I mean training for absolute strength.
Somewhere along the line, the pendulum has swung too far and strength training has become synonymous with hypertrophy training for many trainees. Both disciplines have been diluted and watered down into a middle-ground wash of misinformation.
Hypertrophy and strength training are two different goals. Just because two things are related does not mean they are the same. That’s a fairly simple concept to grasp, isn’t it? So why the confusion?
To be honest I think the confusion stems from the perpetrators of this information campaign not really being experts in bodybuilding or strength training. Confused messengers make for confused messages.
The other part of the breakdown is the selling of information. Most trainees interested in “lifting” are really only interested in mass. In order to “sell” strength training to this population, some feel you need to convince them that strength training is the ultimate way to realize their mass goals.
Strength coaches, personal trainers, and fitness experts of all kinds have been frantically trying to cash in on the fitness cow. Strength training has become a much more lucrative category within that industry but compared to strength training, bodybuilding is a juggernaut. So if you can’t beat them, join them!
There is a popular article by a gentleman named Kurtis J. Wilkins called “The Death of Modern Bodybuilding”. This article has been posted in scores of bodybuilding, strength training, or general fitness forums on the net and it is a perfect example of this “selling” of strength training to a bodybuilding population.
Wilkins asks, in the first paragraph, whether split routines are the death of productive training:
I have come to the following conclusion, after considerable research and study of much of the available material regarding the training methods and results of the so-called ‘old timers’, as well as current training methods and results: the ‘split’ routine has been the death of productive strength training and muscle building. Allow me to explain the reasoning behind this possibly shocking revelation…
A split routine is training organized by splitting the various training sessions into individual body part or muscle group emphasis. These kinds of routines are the favored training method for bodybuilders because they allow a great deal of volume to be thrown at the individual muscles or muscle groups.
Here we have an article, the title of which suggests it is about bodybuilding. Since all training is specific to one’s goals the best way to bring various training camps around to your viewpoint (provided they are impressionable enough) is to use vague language. “Productive training” is one such example. What is productive training? Well, productive training is training which produces the results you want! However, since the language is vague enough we have an almost imperceptible glide from bodybuilding to strength training. This “primes” the reader for the sell to come.
See it wouldn’t do you a bit of good to sell strength training to a bodybuilding audience if that audience believed that strength training and bodybuilding were two different practices. You must implant the suggestion, subtlety, that they are parallel goals. The author of this article does a masterful job of that.
It is one thing to assert that split routines are an unproductive protocol for strength training. To suggest they are unproductive for bodybuilding, however, is a stretch requiring one to redefine the parameters a bit. The fact is that most of the details in the article make sense just as many of the arguments concerning strength training for mass make sense on some level. If you are a fan of Ground Up Strength and have read many of the articles and comments on the site you will be familiar with one important fact: You can win an argument and still be wrong!