Recently someone asked me to write a post comparing one of my old bodybuilding-style workouts to one of my current training sessions. And so it happened that the other day I was unpacking some boxes and found my old training notebooks and programs. I have kept a written record of every workout I’ve done since I started lifting, just over three years ago. It’s always a good laugh to go back and see how my workouts have changed, and how my strength has increased.
Here is a lower body workout I did three years ago:
Seated calf raises: 67.5kg x 20, 80kg x 15, 87.5kg x 10, 90kg x 10, 10
Standing calf raises: 20kg x 10 x 2, 30kg x 10 x 3
Smith machine (!) squats: 32.5kg x 20, 40kg x 15, 42.5kg x 12, 45kg x 12, 12
Leg extension: 15kg x 20, 22.5kg x 15, 40kg x 10 x 3
Leg curls: 17.5kg x 20, 27.5kg x 15, 37.5kg x 10 x 3
Deadlifts: 40kg x 15, 50kg x 12, 55kg x 10 x 3
Jump squats: 15 x 5
Leg press machine (not plate loaded): 20kg x 30, 40kg x 15, 50kg x 15, 60kg x 10, 10
And here is an upper body workout I did three years ago:
Incline smith machine press: 15kg x 30, 20kg x 15, 25kg x 10 x 3
Incline DB press: 6kg x 15, 7kg x 12, 8kg x 10, 9kg x 10
Push ups: 15 x 5
Seated alternate curls: 6kg x 30, 8kg x 20, 9kg x 20, drop set with 5kg dumbbells to failure
Incline pronated DB curls: 6kg x 12, 8kg x 10, 10, drop set with 5kg dumbbells to failure
Cable curls with bar – giant set: 20, 18, 16.3, 14kg x 8 reps each
Reverse crunches: 30 x 3
Hanging leg raises: 15 x 5
Swiss ball crunches: 30 x 3
These workouts were written by my bodybuilding coach at the time and are very typical of what I used to do on the reg. I wanted to be a figure competitor, so I used lots of bodybuilding techniques such as high volume, supersets and drop sets. I hardly spent any time on the compound lifts and did loads of accessory exercises per workout.
These are my initial thoughts: Why on earth would I do 10 sets of calf raises before squats? Why would I do deadlifts at the end of my workout? And 15 rep sets for that matter? I was squatting and pressing on the smith machine – oh, the shame. Why am I incline pressing everything? How many curls does one girl need? Oh look, I used to be able to do push ups. Man, I was weak – and yet I thought I was so damn strong!
In comparison, here is a lower body workout I did last week:
Back squats: 20kg x 10, 10, 40kg x 8, 50kg x 5, 60kg x 5, 70kg x 5
Front squats: 20kg x 10, 40kg x 8, 8, 45kg x 8
Axle bar rack pulls: 60kg x 8, 80kg x 8, 100kg x 5, 120kg x 5, 135kg x 4 (failed fifth rep due to grip)
Back extensions holding 10kg plate: 12 x 4
And a recent upper body workout:
Narrow log press: 30kg x 8, 35kg x 5 (viper), 40kg x 5
Wide log press: 40kg x 5, 42.5kg x 5, 45kg x 3, 47.5kg x 1, 1
Push press: 30kg x 8, 35kg x 8, 40kg x 5, 42.5kg x 3, 3
Seated dumbbell press: 11.5kg x 12, 12, 10
Bent over flyes: 6kg x 12 x 5
Differences from then to now
- Less volume: In my current workouts, I do much fewer sets and reps. I do more sets of the major exercises (squats, deadlifts, presses) but rarely ever more than three or four sets of accessory exercises. I almost always keep my sets to five reps or less for the main lifts, and cry when I have to do “high reps” of 12-15. My body just doesn’t respond well in terms of either aesthetics or strength to high rep sets, so I stick to lower reps. I see no benefit whatsoever in doing high rep sets of light deadlifts, given it is such a profoundly strength-oriented movement. While I used to cram in 8-10 exercises per workout, I now only do three to five.
- Less cardio: Looking at the program I pulled these old workouts from, I was also scheduled to do 30 minutes of interval-based cardio after all five of my resistance sessions, plus 1.5 hours (!) of moderate cardio on my two off days. Holy cardio, batman! Now I only do cardio when I feel like it. Usually that involves one events session (where my cardio involves lifting weights quickly) every two weeks, one 15 minute sprint session every two weeks and one dance class per week, plus walking every day. Last week was my first time on a piece of cardio equipment in over a year!
- Little isolation work: I do very few isolation exercises these days. Every now and then I throw in a tricep or bicep exercise, but I can’t remember the last time I did something like lat raises, upright rows or leg extensions. I try to make every exercise in the gym valuable and directly applicable to the events I have to complete in strongman competitions, which means my workouts almost entirely consist of compound exercises. I credit doing more compound exercises as one of the reasons I can eat more these days – doing lots of sets of squats will rev the metabolism much faster than doing bicep curl dropsets.
- No ab training: In the past 12 months, I have trained abs exactly twice. Because of my dance background, I have a fairly strong core so don’t get much benefit out of direct ab training. As I’m not trying to be a bodybuilder, I have no reason to waste time working on my abs. If I ever noticed that my core was letting me down in my main lifts, I would add in more exercises – but so far this hasn’t happened. This is a huge contrast to the three ab sessions I used to do per week, including a very memorable (and embarrassing!) “calves and abs” day.
- More rest: My rest periods used to be 30-60 seconds max. These days I whinge about being rushed if I get less than two minutes rest in between sets. Usually for deadlifts and presses, I rest 4-5 minutes between sets. Overall, I also have more rest days. I can’t ever imagine training 6-7 days per week again!
- Longer workouts: Although I am only doing half as many sets as before, my workouts take much longer. Previously, my sessions would run for 45-60 minutes but now I’m lucky to get in and out in less than 90 minutes. Because of the longer rest periods I take, I am regularly in the gym for up to two hours.
- No circuits or supersets: For some reason, the two old workouts I highlighted above don’t feature any circuits or supersets, yet I remember doing a lot of them in the past. The only time I do supersets now is when I’m running short on time and need to race through the end of a workout – although that doesn’t happen very often as I tend to allocate two hour periods for my workouts.
- No machines: Since I joined my gym last June, I have used exactly three machines once each (excluding cable machines). My workouts used to be centred around machines, but now I like to use free weights and my own bodyweight as much as possible. I find this much more challenging, and being able to squat 100kg will always be more impressive to me than being able to leg press 300kg. The thought of using the smith machine for squats makes me want to cry.
- No pre-exhaustion: The first exercise of almost every one of my bodybuilding sessions involved some form of pre-exhaustion technique. Whether this meant performing leg extensions or calf raises before squats on leg day, or doing flyes and lat raises before push presses on shoulder day, I always made sure to fatigue my muscles before attempting a compound lift. Because who cares about conserving your energy for the exercises you need it most in?
- More weight! Obviously, one of the main differences is that I have increased my weights on all exercises quite significantly. I spent a long time thinking I was a badass for squatting 45kg on the smith machine, but I never really pushed myself to failure until I started 5/3/1 and then later strongman training. I learnt that it is possible to lift a lot heavier than I thought for a decent amount of repetitions.
There are pros and cons involved in each method of lifting. Nowadays I generally get most of my clients on a strength-focused program with a side of bodybuilding, as I find it most beneficial for people to work towards strength goals as well as aesthetic objectives.
Funnily enough, I experienced the most muscle growth when I stopped bodybuilding and began lifting heavier with less volume. I particularly noticed more definition in my shoulders, arms and back when I switched to a lower rep range. Perhaps my body is strange and builds more muscle at lower rep ranges or, more likely, I was never lifting heavy enough to inspire real change in the beginning.
The one advantage I will give bodybuilding over lifting for strength is that it is less damaging on the muscles and joints. Although I experience less DOMS now than I did back when I was bodybuilding, I have more aches and niggles and my flexibility has gone downhill (although that’s more to do with me being lazy about stretching than the type of workout I’m doing). The positive to come from this is that I can now really appreciate those extra rest days!
Have you ever drastically changed the way you work out?