I’m a Professional Powerlifter. Here’s What I Think About Bodybuilding

Now, let me be clear here: I am a powerlifter. My one, true passion is powerlifting, and obviously, I’m highly biased in that regard. But, as a strength historian, I try to as objective as possible about my own views on sport. Last winter, I shared my perspective on weightlifting, and concluded that (spoiler alert) one is not better than the other. “It’s just fantastic that the tide is rising for all strength sports, because they all can offer better health, an increased sense of self-confidence, and happier lives to their participants,” I wrote.

And that’s true, of course, but if you’re looking for a little more drama, or maybe a little controversy, just read on — about what I think of bodybuilding.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

The (Very, Very, Way Too) Brief History of Bodybuilding

We might think of strength sports as the up-and-comers in today’s fitness world, but actually, bodybuilding is actually relatively young in the history of physical culture. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the sport really began: Eugen Sandow, the performing strongman, included displays of his amazing physique in his shows in the late 1800s, but those were more akin to a modern guest posing session than to any sort of competition. Still, he is considered by many to be the father of bodybuilding.

The whole bodybuilding thing got a lot bigger when photography began to grow in popularity in the early 20th century. Makes sense: just like on Instagram, when you see pictures of other guys who look incredible, and you want to look incredible, too! Still, modern bodybuilding didn’t start to take off until after World War II. We think of Arnold as the ultimate bodybuilder-turned-movie-star, but it was really Steve Reeves who started it all, with his role in the (originally Italian) movie Hercules.

And then, of course, came Arnold. You probably know how the story goes from here. My point with this brief history is to point out how closely tied bodybuilding and media really are. Photos and movies created the bodybuilding phenomenon. That’s important, because if you remember how it started, when you look at where bodybuilding is today (more on this below), you can better understand how it got that way.

Can You Do Both a Powerlifting and Bodybuilding?

The answer here, without a doubt, is yes.

Throughout the entire history of physical culture, most of the true legends – men like Sandow, and Reeves, and Arnold, and also John Grimek, and Bill Kazmaier, and many, many more – they were all about more than just strength. They had both strength and incredible physiques, and again, when you look at the history of bodybuilding, it makes sense: the earliest physique contents, like Sandow’s shows, included both posing sessions and feats of strength.

Beyond that, bodybuilding and powerlifting are complementary. A bigger muscle is a stronger muscle (all other things equal, of course). The opposite is true, too: if you get stronger, you’ll get bigger (as long as you’re eating enough). Greg Nuckols makes a strong argument for why powerlifters should train like bodybuilders more often, and I agree. I’d further argue that understanding dieting strategies, hypertrophy-specific training, and how to build a mind-muscle connection through new and different cues and positioning will all lead to better strength gains as well.

Now, on the other hand, many bodybuilders worry that too much heavy training will thicken their waists or distort their proportions. That’s akin to the stereotype of the woman who doesn’t want to start working out because she’s afraid of getting too bulky. While that stereotype is fortunately being questioned more and more often, many guys still just don’t get it: they think that they can build phenomenal physiques without training heavy. You can’t!

Combining powerlifting and bodybuilding has some psychological advantages, too. Both require enormous amounts of concentration. From the powerlifting side, think about how difficult it is to maintain your technique during a PR attempt: you’re running through a list of mental cues, amping yourself up to apply maximal effort, and probably trying to calm your nerves, all at the same time, and in preparation for a set that will probably only take a few seconds.

A bodybuilding session requires a much different type of concentration – you’re trying to eke the most out of each and every rep, contracting only the muscles you’re targeting, while maintaining a steady, demanding pace – not just for one rep, or even an entire set, but over the course of an entire workout. Instead of a few seconds, you must maintain your focus for upwards of an hour or more.

By training in both styles, you’ll see exponential gains in your mental game. The intense, short-term concentration required in powerlifting will make it easier to get the most out of every rep you do in the gym. The controlled, longer-term style of bodybuilding will help you to maintain the calm focus you need to stay in the moment no matter how much pressure you might feel before a heavy attempt.

Of course, there are limits to this argument. At some point, you’ll need to focus solely on either powerlifting or bodybuilding if you want to truly excel at either. The thing is, that point is far, far, far away for most people. I think my experience at this year’s US Open is a great example. I jumped into the meet with just a month of prep, after a solid four months of bodybuilding work, and won my weight class — but finished just fourth overall.

Of course I would have had a better shot at the win if I had spent a solid 12-16 weeks prepping, but that’s the kind of difference we’re talking about here: between first and fourth at the US Open, not at a local meet. Until you’re at the elite level, the benefits of training for balance by doing both powerlifting and bodybuilding outweigh the drawbacks.

Powerlifting Versus Bodybuilding

In the introduction to this article, I gushed about all the great things strength sports can do for you: make you healthier, more confident, and happier. Bodybuilding can do all that, too — but, at least in my opinion, there’s a lot of really, really unhealthy behavior that’s tied to looking good.

Let’s detour for another quick history lesson. In 1961, Jillian Michaels wasn’t around, but Debbie Drake was. Drake was the first woman to star in a nationally-syndicated exercise show, but she didn’t talk about hard training or eating healthfully — instead, she wore the 1960s equivalent of yoga pants, spoke with a sexy voice, and told women they needed to look beautiful so their guys wouldn’t cheat on them. To look beautiful, she suggested that they do leg raises while chatting on the telephone, and recommended 900-calorie diets for rapid weight loss. Drake was one of the earliest modern examples of #thinspiration, but obviously, her advice was pretty unhealthy.

Unfortunately, when it comes to modern bodybuilding, we’re inundated with the same thing. How often do you scroll through your social media feed and come across “motivational” images of bodybuilders plastered with some inspirational quote and advertisement for a new (likely ineffective) supplement? How about before-and-after progress pictures that have clearly been edited in Photoshop? “Educational” content, like diet or training programs and exercise instruction, that’s clearly unhealthy or unsafe?

The problem isn’t with bodybuilding per se — it’s that the idea of looking good has become so commercialized and sexualized that it’s the industry has lost much of its connection to self-improvement. And you don’t need to do a whole lot of research to see that powerlifting, weightlifting, and other strength sports might be headed in that same direction.

Am I saying you shouldn’t want to be a bodybuilder, or shouldn’t want to look good? Heck no! Again, bodybuilding has a ton of benefits. Done the right way, it’ll make you stronger, healthier, more confident, and more capable in and outside of the gym. But please, if you do set aesthetic goals, make sure you’re pursuing them for you, and not because that’s how the advertisements make you think you should look.

Rant (and article) over!

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page, and photo by @kyle_wurzel.