Back when I first started blogging, I used to poo-poo training for strength (sets of 5 reps or less), as my goal was hypertrophy. Even when some lovely readers of mine commented that I should try testing my one rep max – or hell, even my five rep max – I was blinded by this goal of getting swole. I thought that I had to follow the advice of pro bodybuilders, and never waiver from the 8-12 rep range for all exercises. My training consisted of a lot of sets, minimal rest, and plenty of bodybuilding techniques such as drop sets, FST-7 and sets to failure.
My number one goal was building muscle and dropping body fat, and I honestly didn’t care about being strong. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that things changed (maybe around the time I was diagnosed with PCOS or when I did my first unassisted chin up?), but I soon became addicted to the feeling of becoming stronger. My reason for lifting changed from wanting to change the shape of my body, to wanting to become a better athlete.
The ironic thing is that my body responded the best physically when I started strongman training. My muscle definition increased, I started to eat like a horse and, back when I was doing more event training around the summer time, I also became leaner than I’d ever managed in a healthy way.
I wish I could go back and hit my old self over the head. Did I really think that I wouldn’t be able to grow muscle and drop body fat while lifting for strength? To get stronger, your body adapts by increasing its muscle size and strength. When you put a lot of stress on your body, it burns more calories and consequently you lose body fat. It’s not rocket science.
I know I’m being hypocritical as I once held the same mindset, but it really annoys me when people shy away from training for strength to instead focus on aesthetics – I think because I’ve already been in that position. I want to shake them and tell them that if they push their body to the limit and do some actual work in the gym, their body will naturally look better – not to mention that testing a 1RM is a lot more fun than lifting a light weight 100 times.
The two men with the best, natural bodies I have ever seen (big and muscular, yet with low body fat levels) got that way by lifting heavy ass weight, not by doing circuits and high rep sets.
In the beginning, I think I was secretly afraid of lifting heavy. I didn’t want to injure or challenge myself, so I hid behind the safety of bodybuilding. Now that I’ve ‘seen the light’, here are five reasons why I wish I’d started lifting heavier sooner:
I’ve banged on and on about this in the past, but lifting really does wonders for your confidence. You don’t have to rely on anyone else to carry your bags, push your broken down car, or haul a body out of a burning building (hey, it could happen!). You have faith in what your body can do, and you feel like nothing can touch you.
2. It actually works
A lot of the tips given in fitness magazines are given by bodybuilders who are on steroids. Newsflash: if you are not on special vitamins, you will not see the same results. You can’t do a two hour bicep workout and expect to achieve the same peak as someone whose last set involves sticking a needle in their butt. When you train hard, your body will respond and you will see both physical and mental results.
3. It’s fun
Once I started training for strength, I could never imagine going back to bodybuilding. Heading to the gym for a sled and stones workout is infinite times more fun than gearing up for a calves and abs day (for newer readers, yes, I actually used to follow this training split!). Whenever I have to do a set of more than five reps, I get extremely bored – I can’t believe I used to train like that all the time!
4. I found my swolemates…
I have developed friendships with people, solely because we both lift heavy. Even though I don’t lift that heavy relative to most people at my gym, a lot of the more hardcore guys respect me and give me valuable advice because they see how hard I try, and they want me to succeed. There is a wonderful strongman community in the UK that I feel lucky to be a part of, with a camaraderie I feel is lacking in bodybuilding circles.
5. …and finally achieved peace with my body
When you train for strength, a wonderful thing happens: you stop focusing on aesthetics. Preparing for a certain exercise becomes more about coming up with ways to add more weight to the bar, rather than thinking about what angle best hits the medial deltoid.
Australia is entering summer, and my friends back home have asked me if I’ll be dieting now that I’m going back in January. The resounding answer is a big NO. The last time I was trying to lose fat was before I started strongman training and after I had gained a bit of post-surgery weight. As soon as I picked my competition and realised I didn’t have to drop a weight class, I stopped dieting as other things suddenly became a lot more important!
So I will keep enjoying my cheeseburgers and Ben & Jerry’s, and feel happy knowing that I am comfortable stripping down to my bikini at any moment. I finally see my body for what it can do, rather than what it lacks.
I know that there are other forms of exercise which can inspire these feelings, but I’m assuming that most people who are reading my blog enjoy weight lifting – so I urge you to try training for strength and power if you haven’t already! At the very least, you should be lifting HEAVY for the main lifts: squats, deadlifts, bench press and push presses. If I wanted to be leaner, I would throw in more high rep accessory work but my desire to become stronger is taking precedence over achieving a certain body fat percentage.
Do you prefer to lift for strength or aesthetics?