Co-authored by Julian Berriman
Bodybuilding? That is so yesterday!
At almost every fitness-related seminar you attend nowadays, you will hear the phrase "functional training." You will listen to the presenters telling you how bad traditional bodybuilding exercises are for our neuromusculo-skeletal health and how they are leading our poor unsuspecting bodies down the neural pathway of muscle imbalance and tissue breakdown. Exercises like (I don’t think I can say it) the absolute favorite exercise of all time, the good old faithful chest annihilator…the bench press!
What these presenters have overlooked is that most members who walk through our gym doors want the very same thing that I did all those years ago when I picked up my first set of dumbbells. They want to improve the way they look – pure and simple! They didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to join a gym today because I’m not happy with the stability of my lumbo-pelvic-hip complex!”
They may not want the "washboard abs," "dinner plate" pecs or the "barn door" shoulders, but they are looking to forge their bodies with exercise and nutrition.
As a species, we have always admired the human form, and we have always personified superiority with physical perfection. In today’s technology-led society, we have apparently moved away from the "alpha male" scenario. We find ourselves in a working environment where we are judged largely on our mental prowess. Yet there is still a deep instinctive physical comparison taking place, which is why bodybuilding has had such an impact on the fitness world and the way personal trainers prescribe exercises for their clients. It is no coincidence that publishers adorn the covers of their magazines with god-like figures. They’re not silly; they’re selling a dream! The dream of physical perfection!
However, the dream of physical perfection is a little harder to come by than these publications would have us believe. If it were easy, we would all look and feel great!
End of an Era
Suddenly, the bodybuilding world has come crashing down around us! Functional training is now apparently the only way to train! So are these functional advocates telling us that building muscle is bad for us? Surely building muscle is the body’s natural response to hard work, and we replicate hard work in the gym with resistance. Haven’t we always sold resistance training as being beneficial to health?
So what is it about bodybuilding that is so offensive to the functional camp? Is it because we are building muscle? Or is it the way in which we do it that is so hard to swallow?
Hypertrophy (hi-PER-tro-fe) - An excessive enlargement or over growth of tissue without cell division.”
(Tortora and Grabowski 1996)
Bodybuilding programme design is based upon one very simple principle: In order to increase the cross-sectional area of our muscles, we perform repeated resisted movements which, in turn, induce fatigue within a certain time frame. This is performed for all of the "major" muscle groups within a split routine so that you can completely annihilate every single muscle fiber in your body.
That’s it! That’s bodybuilding programme design in a nutshell! However, if hypertrophy training is potentially dysfunctional, why is this the case and what can we do about it?
Decreased Muscle Function
Most bodybuilders will have been told that using eight to 12 repetitions will achieve the best results when seeking hypertrophy and will very seldom, if ever, deviate from this repetition range. When you consider that each repetition, on average, lasts around four seconds (two seconds concentric and two seconds eccentric), each set or contraction period will therefore last between 32 and 48 seconds (4 x 8 /12).
Reaching maximum voluntary contraction within this time frame will ensure that the body is heavily dependent on the lactate (anaerobic) energy system for ATP production. It is, however, the case that exercising for these short periods will not promote a proportionate increase in capillary density due to a decreased dependence on oxygen. A rapid increase in the volume of a muscle cell, without any increase in the capillary network that supplies the muscle, will lead to an ischemic environment being created. This will result in diminished nutrient and oxygen supply, which slows down the metabolic processes within the muscle and the disposal of metabolic waste products from the muscle (Zalessky & Burkhanov, Legkaya Atlitika, 1981). So, in short, many bodybuilders will have fewer capillaries per square inch of muscle than even sedentary individuals, let alone other exercisers!
To illustrate why this ischemic environment can lead to muscle dysfunction, let’s take a look at some interesting studies involving chickens. There are two types of chicken: those that are bred for eggs (layer type) and those bred for meat (meat-type). Meat-type chickens (MTC), as you would expect, are a lot more muscular than layer type chickens (LTC), especially in the chest department. The studies analyzed the effects of exercise on the muscles of these two types of chicken and revealed that the muscles of the MTC contained a greater proportion of glycolytic (anaerobic) muscle fibers than the LTC. As a result, the oxidative capacity of the skeletal muscle was considerably reduced. Fiber degeneration and other myo-pathological (muscle damaging) changes also occurred more frequently in MTC than in LTC of the same age.
The breast muscle of the MTC was particularly affected. The MTC showed a higher increase of muscular lesions after repeated wing exercise than the LTC. These lesions, caused by muscle activity, were classified as adaptive and reversible in the LTC, as opposed to the irreversible destruction to the contractile proteins suffered by the MTC, as a result of muscle ischemia after exertion (Soike and Bergmann, 1998). This would indicate that the increased muscular size and fiber type characteristics present in the MTC are the main causes of these negative effects on muscle function. The decreased oxygen carrying and utilization abilities of hypertrophied muscles will affect their ability to respond positively to exercise, leading to irreversible structural damage occurring within the muscle. (Adapted from "Advanced Training Planning for Bodybuilders: Part 1" by Brian Haycock MS, CSCS from the web site thinkmuscle.com)
This kind of reduced function has led many a bodybuilder down the slippery path to premature stagnation in their training. The capillary network that supplies the muscles with oxygen and other vital nutrients for muscle tissue regeneration is completely insufficient. If continued results are demanded, the die-hard bodybuilder may see no other choice but to seek chemical enhancement.
Connective Tissue Response
Another detrimental effect of hypertrophy training on muscle function is the decreased ability of the connective tissue to repair and strengthen itself in proportion to the muscles. Due to the reduced nutrient and blood supply, ligaments and tendons can take up to seven times longer than muscle tissue to recover from a single bout of exercise. Increases in strength, brought about through muscle hypertrophy without proportionate increases in connective tissue strength, will inevitably lead to tendon and ligament damage (Zalessky & Burkhanov, Legkaya Atlitika, 1981).
This situation is greatly exaggerated during the rapid hypertrophy experienced whilst using anabolic steroids. Basically, the muscles out-perform the tendons (or ligaments) and literally get too strong for the skeletal system to support!
With both of these situations in mind, surely it’s no coincidence that pec and bicep tears are two of the most common injuries in bodybuilding.
Delayed Onset of Muscular Soreness (DOMS)
Most trainers, when in pursuit of hypertrophy, will attempt to annihilate every muscle fibre within a particular muscle by utilizing multiple sets to failure. Unsurprisingly, with workouts like this, DOMS (delayed onset of muscular soreness) is never far away. In fact, they are not usually happy unless they can feel that tightness across their chest the next day, the “it hurts, so it must be doing some good” mentality.
The initial response to any resistance training is an increase in strength of the connective tissue and fascia, as opposed to an increase in strength of the contraction. In animal studies, the initial signs of fiber hypertrophy could be attributed mainly to an increase in connective tissue (Antonio and Gonyea, 1993). This increase in connective tissue density is a protective response that is present as soon as 48 hours after the first bout of heavy resistance training (Brian Haycock, thinkmuscle.com). This tells us that the DOMS we experience after resistance training is a fascial response to a new movement. It’s the body’s way of attempting to stabilize itself by laying down fibrous tissue in the direction of tension that has been placed upon it. This is why DOMS is not related to intensity. You know this because as soon as you stick a new exercise into your workout you get DOMS, even when using very little weight! As your motor units become synchronised, and you develop competency within that movement, you can really start to throw some weight about, and yet you experience very little - if any - DOMS at all!!!
So, is DOMS the measure of a good workout? The answer is probably not. It just indicates that we haven’t done that particular exercise before or at least in a long while. So, let’s stop pursuing DOMS like it’s the be all and end all of training effectiveness. The body's response will greatly improve if you exercise each muscle group more frequently and with fewer sets, as opposed to hammering your muscles only once a week.
Bodybuilding is focused on the overloading of specific muscles to achieve muscle gain. In order to achieve this, muscles - or muscle groups- have to be isolated, either by sophisticated machines designed to this end or through exercises and techniques tailored toward such muscle isolation. For example, the approach adopted by many trainers to condition the abdominals is to perform abdominal crunches on the floor because the abdominals act on the ribcage and pubis to create flexion of the trunk. Performing crunches on the floor (or in a crunch machine) will allow the trainer to sufficiently fatigue the rectus abdominis in order to promote hypertrophy; however, this way of conditioning the abdominals will have massive implications on back stability.
The abdominals’ main function in everyday and sporting activity is to work harmoniously with the other core muscles to stabilize the lumbar spine and the pelvis during rotation of the trunk. Yet, we are training them purely in flexion, a sagittal plane dominant movement.
This is where the problem starts! When we adopt uni-directional strength training (especially in the sagittal plane), it has been shown to lessen the co-contraction of the antagonist (Carolan & Catarelli, 1992). During movement, the muscles that surround the joints need to work synergistically in order to maintain the optimal alignment of the joints involved. This will allow the joints to articulate in their most bio-mechanically advantageous position. This not only allows for maximum force production but also reduces the amount of stress placed onto - and through - our musculo-skeletal system.
So, by doing crunches, we have taught the nervous system to activate the rectus abdominis whilst the other core muscles, whose job it is to co-contract and resist the flexion forces from the abdominals, are de-activated, affecting spinal integrity and resulting in poor spinal mechanics, irritation and inevitable injury.
Role of Monoarticular and Biarticular Muscles
Muscles can be categorized as monoarticular (cross a single joint), biarticular or multi-joint, (cross two or more joints) depending on how many joints they cross. This classification will affect their function as regards to joint stabilization.
The monoarticular muscles can be seen as fulfilling a primary role in terms of joint stabilization. They control one specific joint movement (e.g.. vasti group: knee extension) and possess an anatomical arrangement that facilitates their role in joint stabilization. As Richardson et al. (1999) state, “They are often pennate, with extensive fascial attachments, a design linked to controlling large joint forces rather than controlling large ranges of movement.”
The biarticular and multi-joint muscles possess functional qualities that make them less suited to giving support to individual joints. They are usually long muscles with a fusiform structure, making them less efficient in providing stabilization to individual joints and more suited to controlling and directing large ranges of movement.
These different types of muscle usually lie within the same muscle group. It is important that the monoarticular muscles provide stability and have not weakened to the extent where the biarticular muscles are forced to fulfill a stabilization role, one that they are ill-equipped to do. This situation would increase the demand placed onto the biarticular muscles, which may lead to overactivity and shortness. In this scenario, the joint will also be out of optimal alignment during movement. It may also explain why biarticular muscles, like the hamstrings, are often subject to strains and other overuse injuries.
This is one of the reasons that many bodybuilders, who look fantastic, suffer the ill-effects of poor shoulder, back and hip stability. Their exercise programs only focus on the "mirror" muscles, the global biarticular muscles that produce force. From a training perspective, the aim must instead be to ensure that monoarticular muscles are providing stability around a joint before the biarticular muscles are challenged during more movement-based exercise.
To increase co-contraction of the muscles that surround our joints, we will need to move away from the supported environment of the machines and benches and start training in unstable environments and with exercises that require a high level of precision and control (Damiano, 1993); for example, exercises performed in all three planes of movement (sagittal, frontal and transverse).
Training the muscles with fixed path resistance machines will also lead to a condition often referred to as pattern overload. Whenever we train with resistance, the muscles suffer a certain amount of micro-trauma, which facilitates the repair and the remodeling process. The problem we have with fixed path resistance machines is that every repetition we perform is identical. This will result in overuse injuries through the accumulation of the associated micro-trauma suffered by the musculoskeletal system from these repeated identical movements. The use of free weights or cable resistance helps to reduce the ill-effects of pattern overload, as every repetition follows a slightly different path (Roman and Shakirzyanov, 1982).
What the Heck are We Doing to Ourselves?
My goodness! Now we can start to appreciate why the functional fraternity has issues with bodybuilding. Surely only a madman would want to promote:
- an ischemic environment within muscles, which leads to irreversible damage to the muscle tissue.
- a strength deficit in the connective tissue, often resulting in tendon and ligament injuries.
- joint instability through fixed path resistance training, resulting in increased wear and tear on the joints.
- overactivity in the biarticular muscles as they are forced to stabilize and produce force at the same time, often resulting in muscle shortness and tears.
- an accumulation of micro-trauma within the contractile elements of muscles from repeated fixed path contractions, often resulting in repetitive strain injuries (RSI).
Now, with all of these problems associated with training for hypertrophy, you would imagine that the solution would be pretty hard to come by. That’s where you’re wrong! The solution to our bodybuilding problems can be answered in a single word: periodization! All of these issues can be overcome by the effective and progressive manipulation of the training variables (reps, sets and rest) within phases or cycles of training.
Offsetting Muscle Ischemia
To create a greater capillary density around the muscle, we will need to increase the contraction period so that the muscle is more dependent on oxygen for the production of ATP. In short, we will need to program an endurance phase into our training, which will increase the body’s ability to supply the muscle with tissue-building nutrients and help to promote a positive environment for continuous muscle growth.
This can be applied to your program as follows:
- Prior to your hypertrophy phase, you program a four-week period that focuses on large movement-based exercises using 15 to 20 repetitions (or contraction time of greater than one minute). This will help to promote an increase in capillarization.
- Once in your hypertrophy phase, you may dedicate exercises either in your warm up preparation or within a separate workout to endurance training. This will help to maintain the capillary network you have worked so hard to achieve in your endurance phase.
Increasing Joint Stability
We can increase joint stability by training within an unstable environment. With the utilization of stability balls, BOSU balls, wobble boards and body blades, etc., we can amplify our instability, which stimulates the nervous system to increase the co-contraction of the monoarticular muscles that surround and stabilize the joints. Not only will the increased joint stability go towards reducing the ill-effects of increased joint wear and tear and biarticular muscle strains, increased joint stability will also create a solid foundation from which the arms and legs can function. This will allow us to generate more force which, in turn, will recruit and fatigue more muscle fibers, thereby increasing the potential for muscle growth. A double whammy!!
This can be achieved as follows:
Prone jack-knife with press up combo
- Perform a two to four week stability phase prior to your endurance phase of training.
- Combine your endurance phase with a stability phase, with the inclusion of both types of exercises. Some stability exercises lend themselves extremely well to endurance training due to the large muscle involvement (e.g., prone jack-knife with press up combo).
Reducing Pattern Overload
We can reduce the incidence of pattern overload and repetitive strain injuries with the simple inclusion of free weights and cable resistance, which reduce the negative effects of repetitious movement. We can also ensure that the training stimulus is varied and progressive by changing our programs regularly (every four to six weeks).
Reducing Connective Tissue Weakness
By altering the training stimulus, through effective periodization, the connective tissue will be given sufficient time to regenerate itself in proportion to the muscle it supports.
Effective periodization can be achieved by working your way through the training continuum so that the neuromusculoskeletal system is always prepared for the rigors of the next training phase:
- Stability phase – will increase the co-contraction of the muscles that surround the joints
- Endurance phase – will increase capillarization to the muscle and help establish good technique with lighter resistances
- Hypertrophy phase – the body is now suitably prepared for muscle growth
- Strength and power – will increase the motor unit synchronization
Note: a small period of rest (three to five days) should be programmed to allow for regeneration following each phase of training.
The Role of Movement-Based Exercise
My article “Movement-based Exercise” described the value and relevance of exercise based around movement patterns that replicate activities performed in everyday sporting, occupational or lifestyle situations. These more “functional” exercises recognize that the body works as a unit with the interaction of multiple joints and muscle in any one movement. Such a philosophy directly contradicts the bodybuilding creed of “isolate to obliterate” and brings many advantages:
- utilizing whole body movements restricts the local fatigue experienced by individual muscles, as the force is dissipated across the body. This will reduce the ischemic environment within muscles and promote appropriate connective tissue development.
- dissipating force across multiple joints will reduce the stresses imposed on individual joints.
- the neuromuscular co-ordination required for whole body movements establishes effective co-contractions of muscles around joints to stabilize and generate force.
- increasing joint stability through encouraging more complex full body movements promotes a more balanced interaction of monoarticular and biarticular muscles.
- employing free weights and cables reduces the degenerative effects of pattern overload on the musculoskeletal system.
So, the advantages of movement-based training are clear to see. It is, however, also true that this form of training will also restrict the local fatigue experienced by individual muscles, as the force is dissipated across the whole body. This, in turn, will limit exaggerated muscle growth responses.
Sorry, Did I Just Mention the Unmentionable?
But what is stopping us supplementing our functional movement-enhancing exercises with restricted, supported, isolation-type exercises? Nothing at all! We are simply recognizing that there are benefits to be gained from isolation training, which can be exploited as long as muscles trained in isolation are then integrated within the various muscle chains they contribute to. As Janda (1999) states, “If you are going to isolate, you must then integrate.”
By combining hypertrophy and functional exercises, we can achieve both the desired muscular adaptations while also promoting more effective coordination between various muscle groups. Below is an example of how you can marry the two and reap the benefits of both.
You’ve just entered the realms of functional bodybuilding. Enjoy!!!
- Advanced training planning for bodybuilders: part 1, by Brian Haycock MS, CSCS from the website thinkmuscle.com).
- Antonio J. and Gonyea W. J. (1993) Skeletal muscle fiber hyperplasia. Med, Sci. Sports Exerc. 25(12): 1333-45
- Carolan & Catarelli (1992) Adaptation in Coactivation after Isometric Resistance Training. Journal of Applied Physiology 73:911-917
- Damiano, D.L. (1993) Reviewing Muscle Co-contractions: Is it a Developmental Pathological of Motor Control Issue? Physical and Occupational Therapy in Paediatrics 12.3.20
- Janda, V. (1999) Function of Muscles and Musculoskeletal Pain Syndromes. San Diego, CA
- Richardson et al (1999) Therapeutic Exercise for Spinal Segmental Stabilisation in Low Back Pain - Scientific Basis and Clinical Approach. Churchill Livingstone.
- Roman, R.A. and Shakirzyanov, M.S. The Snatch, the Clean and Jerk. Published: Andrew Charniga Jr., 1982
- Soike D., Bergmann V. (1998) Comparison of skeletal muscle characteristics in chicken bred for meat of egg production: I. Histopathoogical and electron microscopic examination. Zentralbl Veterinarmed A. 45 (3): 161 – 167)& II. Histochemical and morphometric examination. Zentralbl Veterinarmed A. 45 (3): 169 – 174.)
- Tortora G. J., Grabowski S. R., Principles of Anatomy & Physiology, 1996, Biological Sciences Textbooks, Inc. 8th Edition, Glossary pg. 29
- Zalessky & Burkhanov, Legkaya Atlitika, 1981.