For most of my life, I followed a bodybuilding approach to fitness based on aesthetics, frequent eating, and targeting 1-2 muscle groups each workout.
My fitness bible was “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Guide to Modern Bodybuilding” and I “chased the pump” for many years. I worshipped hugely muscular dudes with 20-inch biceps, so of course I did their 20-set arms routines, which I read in Muscle & Fitness magazine to get my 12-inch teenage guns bigger.
After over 10 years of following the bodybuilding path, I realized my athleticism and overall health were declining. I was tighter than Tin Man, I lacked the balance and coordination I enjoyed as an avid athlete growing up, my frequent eating schedule created unnecessary anxiety in my life, and finally, I had an unhealthy focus on how I looked.
I’m not writing this article to say the bodybuilding approach to fitness is evil, or wrong. There are many bodybuilders who I’ve learned from and respect like Tom Venuto, Dave Draper, & Franco Columbu to name a few.
I’m sharing my opinion on how following a functional fitness approach based on how our bodies are built to function may lead to better health, more happiness, and greater longevity.
1. Use Your Body As One Piece
If I could sum up the functional fitness approach to exercise in one phrase, it would be to “use your body as one piece”.
The human body is an amazing interconnected web of muscles, fascia, bones, ligaments, tendons, nerves and other matter that collaborate seamlessly to create movement and support life.
Focusing on one, or two body parts each workout is like turning the human body into a dumb machine comprised of disparate parts. But this is not how the human body works, or is structured. If you watch a human dissection (videos are available on YouTube), you’ll see that trying to “target” specific muscles through exercise is almost laughable.
Anatomist Thomas Myers concluded the human body is like “one muscle separated into 600 fascial pockets”. Fascia is the collagenous web that connects our muscles together.
A full-body exercise approach based on fundamental movement patterns like squatting, bending, pushing, and pulling uses the body as one piece to develop functional strength that carries over into your daily life or sporting activities. This approach also promotes better cardiovascular health and mobility.
A full-body approach is arguably superior for building muscle, burning fat, improving strength, and increasing athletic performance.
Finally, a full-body, functional approach that emphasizes movements over muscle groups can help address (or identify) weaknesses you may have, which in turn boosts your overall strength and athleticism.
2. Focus On Performance, Aesthetics Will Follow
While how you look is probably very important to you, does that mean your training should be structured around aesthetics? I don’t think so.
From a historical perspective, the purpose of exercise was to prepare for physical challenges, typically sport or fighting. My guess is that Spartan Warriors were not worried about getting a biceps pump.
By focusing on improving performance, as you become stronger and more athletic, your body will start to look more athletic, lean, and fit. In other words, aesthetics are a byproduct of improved performance.
Most importantly, focusing on performance creates a healthy mindset shift from obsessively thinking about how you look, to approaching exercise as a skill that is developed and refined. This can be a liberating experience.
By challenging your entire body as one piece, you develop your muscles in a way that is naturally aesthetic. You won’t have to worry about gross muscle imbalances like an oversized chest with small arms. You won’t have to worry about doing abs exercises to get a six-pack.
3. Eat To Support Your Lifestyle
The typical bodybuilding approach to nutrition is to eat frequently, as many as 6 or 7 meals per day. Most of these meals are comprised of whole foods, with a couple protein shakes.
Bodybuilding is also associated with heavy use of supplements and ergogenic aids like steroids. Supplements in particular are promoted by reputable fitness models who are sponsored by the supplement companies. While some supplements can make a difference, most are a waste of money in my opinion.
Research has shown meal frequency does not boost your metabolism, nor does it help you burn more fat1. Whether it’s eating 3 square meals per day, or 2, or 7, go with whatever best fits your lifestyle.
How do you build a strong, lean, athletic body? – Train like an athlete by using a full-body approach to exercise and fuel your body with whole foods, eating however many meals makes sense for you while meeting the demands of your active lifestyle.
Have you ever followed the bodybuilding approach before? Have you made the shift to a functional fitness approach?
- Cameron JD, Cyr MJ, Doucet E. Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet Br J Nutr. 2010;103(8):1098-101. ↩