Yes, you read that right. Although I’m always preaching about functional strength and focusing on the quality of movement, I think there is a time and place for bodybuilding type training. But not for the kind of reasons you might think.
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First off, I am not a bodybuilder. Yes, it’s neat that, as a side-effect of strength training, I have the guns to show for it (well, mini-guns). But that’s not my main objective.
However, training for hypertrophy (i.e. increasing the volume of muscle tissue) has numerous benefits apart from just looking jacked. And there is no reason not to combine your functional strength training with some good ol’ bodybuilding.
Believe it or not, while the number of candles on your birthday cake might increase, your muscle mass will decrease over time. That is, if you don’t counteract this natural process with some pumpin’!
Use it or lose it.
Why is muscle mass important for longevity? Well, I’m not a doctor, but I’ll do my very best to sum up what I’ve found while I was researching this in the literature:
Generally speaking, lean muscle mass and organ reserve tend to correlate throughout life.
“Organ reserve” pretty much means that your organs (liver, kidneys, heart, etc.) are tough bastards that can take a beating. That means your organs will remain functioning even if the body is exposed to illness, injury or toxicity.
Your muscles and organs are like chess pieces in this regard. The muscles are the pawns and the inner organs are the more valuable pieces (king, queen, knight, etc.). When under attack, chess players often “sacrifice” a pawn to rescue a more valuable piece such as the queen.
That’s exactly what happens to the body when it’s exposed to stress (e.g. illness). Survival mode is on and it sacrifices muscle protein to give your immune system some extra oompf. The more pawns you can sacrifice, the longer you can preserve the more important players.
Besides that, with bigger muscles, you’ll get to eat more without getting fat (more powerful motors require more gas). I think we can all agree on the fact that obese folks have, on average, a shorter life expectancy. No PhD required for that.
Last but not least, preserved muscle mass helps you stay active, which in turn helps with preserving muscle mass. If you can maintain this positive feedback loop long until after your first grey hair, chances are you’ll live a long and active life.
Health Benefits of Hypertrophy Training
Okay, so we’ve established that having bigger muscles is healthy. The really cool thing is that the kind of training you would do to specifically target building muscle is healthy in itself.
The characteristics that make the bodybuilding approach “healthy” in my book are:
- Use of mid to high rep range (sets of 8-15 reps or even 20-30 reps are preferred)
- High volume (the product of sets and reps per muscle group is higher)
As a result, the muscles emphasized by a certain exercise will get more time under tension. Now, why is that good?
Your joints, tendons and ligaments love high-rep training.
Pure strength training can make the life of your joints and tendons suck, because you’ll mostly do very few reps (3-6) under high tension. This works if you want to get strong. Your muscles develop faster than your tendons and ligaments (they got better blood supply) and they also recover faster. You might get to a point where your muscles can handle lots of tension, but your tendons are not quite there yet. That’s a problem.
High-rep training can counter this tendency:
- Just as with joint circles when doing mobility drills, high-rep training facillitates the distribution of joint fluids, which makes you move limber and smooth.
- The resistance will be light enough to induce some positive stress on your tendons and ligaments without putting too much tension on them. This will help them catch up to your powerful muscles.
If you’re serious about training, there is a good chance that you’ve already injured yourself or that you will in the future. Getting in some reps can diminish this chance.
Filling the Functional Gap
How do you implement all this very reasonable sounding advice?
When I train, I still focus mainly on compound movements and maximal strength development. I focus on the fundamental movements:
- Upper push (e.g. push-ups, dips, overhead press, etc.)
- Upper pull (e.g. pull-ups, chin-ups, front levers)
- Squat (pistols, front squats, shrimp squats)
- Hinge (deadlift, kettlebell swings, one-legged deadlift)
In order to make any significant gains, you’ve got to stick to a few movements for a while. I’m currently working on front levers, which means I’ll do some front lever practice every time I train. I’ll hardly do any other upper-body pulling work such as pull-ups or chin-ups. But, over time, this can lead to repititive overuse injuries.
Another problem is that if you focus only on one pushing and one pulling movement, you will still end up with a few imbalances that will creep up on you and lead to postural problems.
You may have heard that you should counter your pushing movements with an equal amount of pulling movements. Overdeveloped chest muscles and underdeveloped back muscles lead to poor posture (rounded back, shoulders are slumbed forward).
But there is a problem if all your pulling work consists solely of pull-ups.
The pull-up is a vertical pull and emphasizes mainly the lats (the “wings” under your arm pits). Internal rotation of the shoulders is what causes the desk-jockey posture, and besides the pectorals (chest muscles), the lats are also internal rotators. Bummer.
The muscles that pull your shoulders back are the ones that are emphasized during horizontal pulling, i.e. rowing.
Building up the appropriate muscles to counteract these postural problems seems like a legit strategy. Hypertrophy in the rhomboids, teres major and minor (rowing muscles), deltoids (shoulder muscle), glutes (butt cheeks) and hamstrings will almost always correspond to good posture.
Remember the time you did those endless sets of biceps curls in the gym (no point in denying it now, bro). Your biceps was pumped to a degree that made it hard to lock your arms out at your elbows. Now imagine that is happening in the muscles involved in your posterior chain. That’s kind of what we want.
We will not do endless sets of biceps curls and bench presses at different angles, followed by a gazillion crunches. Instead of pumping the beach muscles, we will focus on all the muscles you don’t see in the mirror (be prepared for compliments on your sexy look from behind).
Enough with the anatomy class, gimme a program!
Alright here’s an example:
- Handstand push-ups
- Front lever
Do lots of sets, low reps and stay fresh. I usually spend about 30-40 minutes on these 4 movements.
- Hindu push-ups
- Bodyweight rows
- Bodyweight squats
At the end of my training, I do these exercises for 3 rounds. I do as many reps per exercise as possible.
Hindu push-ups take your shoulders through a wide range of motion, which makes them an excellent shotgun solution for every training session. Rows counter the heavy emphasize on the lats from the front levers. Bodyweight squats add in some bilateral training (pistols are unilateral) and add sufficient volume to make hips, knees and ankles happy. If you have access to kettlebells (or dumbbells), goblet squats are also a phenomenal option here.
This routine hits all the fundamental movements, focuses on max-strength but still gives your inner Arnie something to survive on.
This is actually a pretty neat setup for muscle building in those areas that need it. Your body gets a nice hit of anabolic hormones from the big compound movements and gets some extra pump in with the finishers.
Try adding some hypertrophy style training at the end of your training and get swole, live longer and enjoy walking around with a tall chest.
Photo courtesy of my man Danny Kavadlo.
If you want to dig deeper into bodybuilding style training using calisthenics only, check out Paul “Coach” Wade’s book C-Mass. Should you still desire to polish your beach muscles, I recommend Danny Kavadlo’s superb book Diamond-Cut Abs. These are affiliate links, but those books are easily two of my favorite training/fitness books.