Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could...
Two sports diverged...bodybuilding and powerlifting...this is my story about my journey down both roads. Before I begin, this is not intended to be a polarizing discussion on bodybuilding vs. powerlifting. It’s not a one is better vs. the other debate. It’s simply my own reflections and personal experiences after having done both and the realization that FOR ME, one is better than the other. If you are in one of these sports, your own personal experiences may differ from mine...we all experience life uniquely. This is simply a reflection on my personal journey and where I am today as a result.
I have been blessed to experience both the competitive sport of bodybuilding and powerlifting. The two share much in common and yet couldn’t be more different.
What happens on the bodybuilding stage? In simplest explanation, bodybuilders appear in lineups on stage in front of a panel of judges and are assessed for muscularity, symmetry, and conditioning. There are different categories and each category is judged according to its corresponding set of criteria. What happens on a powerlifting platform? Lifters compete in 3 main lifts: squat, bench press and deadlift. Each lifter gets 3 attempts for each main lift and the goal is to successfully lift the most that you can in order to achieve the highest total that you can. As in bodybuilding, there are also judges in powerlifting. In bodybuilding, judging is criteria based but definitely has a subjective element, whereas in powerlifting, judging is not subjective...you either successfully lift the weight or you don’t. It’s not based on how you look...it’s based on how strong you are relative to your body weight. On that note, it’s interesting that you absolutely cannot assume strength based on looks. I know of some who are less muscular in size, yet they can squat more weight than some of the more muscular bodybuilders. Training for strength vs. training for size (hypertrophy) are both very different and specific. You can train somewhat in a middle ground and achieve some of both, but if you want to specialize in one or the other, then your training must reflect that,
Both are what I consider extreme sports. Bodybuilding requires you to obtain an extreme level of conditioning. You must achieve such low levels of body fat so that your muscle development and definition can show through. Muscle symmetry, proportion and muscle detail are all important. Firstly, you must build the muscle that you intend to showcase, secondly, you must shed the overlying body fat so that the muscle definition shows through, and thirdly, you must know how to move and pose in order to truly show what you have built...it’s an art form. All of this takes TIME...a lot of it! For my last show prep in which I achieved my best ever level of conditioning with the help and expertise of my coach (C620 Nutrition), I prepped for 20 weeks. Prep is the time period in which you begin to gradually drop body fat while trying to maintain and hold onto as much muscle mass as possible. This is a very grueling 20 weeks of strict dieting and training, including increased cardio. Note: many people outside of the sport think you starve your way onto the bodybuilding stage, but this is not the case with a good coach. Yes, you will be hungry, but to hold onto muscle mass, you cannot starve yourself to the stage. It’s not starvation, but rather very strict dietary adherence to the calories required for your body, macronutrient ratios, and smart nutrient timing. A good coach will be able to tune in to exactly how your body responds to small adjustments in carbohydrates and fats and he/she will manipulate those accordingly to get you dialed in. I wasn’t starving, but yes, I was hungry. I generally felt fueled enough to get through my training although there were certainly days of struggle. Towards the very end, I did find myself mentally obsessing over foods that I generally would not care to eat. This escalated the closer I got to the show with the obsessive anticipation of eating what I wanted as soon as the show ended. These are the types of thoughts and mental patterns that I do not find healthy about the sport. I believe it mentally sets some of us up for unhealthy relationships with food and a potential to fall into binge/restriction cycles. It seems that no matter how disciplined you are, you will find yourself bingeing to a degree post competition. You are in a vulnerable state post competition as hormones are out of whack due to being at such an abnormally low level of body fat. It takes quite a bit of time to regulate your body and your appetite post competition. You cannot hold onto your stage body. Many people try to stay lean and shredded, but long term, it’s not realistic nor healthy. You will gain weight and you should return to healthy body fat levels post show, but not overnight. Everyone rebounds to a degree, but some people rebound very hard, eating everything in sight and put on too much weight too fast. This is hard on the body and it’s hard mentally. It’s better to reverse diet your calories back up slowly so that you return to your level of homeostasis safely and gradually without packing on too much unwanted body fat, but this is easier said than done. Many people struggle mentally with losing a show conditioned body and as the body fat returns, they eagerly jump back into another show prep in order to get the show body back. This continues over and over for many people. For some, it’s less about the sport itself and more about the obsession with body image. I honestly think that bodybuilding is a sport in which many people with eating disorders hide behind. I’m not saying bodybuilding is a bad sport or that it breeds disorders, but I think that people with these issues can easily hide behind it and I also think that if you have a propensity towards an eating disorder, this sport will manifest it. Those statements may infuriate some people, but for those who have experience in this sport...if you’re absolutely honest, you will find it difficult to disagree. I will speak with complete transparency and say that while thankfully, I do not have issues with eating disorders, I can personally attest to the fact that I did have a poor relationship with food for quite some time after competing. Food was the PREVALENT focus of my mind for a long time. From 2013-mid 2017, I spent nearly 4 years micro managing every gram or ounce of food that went into my mouth for bodybuilding. Those years were spent building willpower and discipline, yes, BUT, I was also building mental habits that were less healthy for me. After making the switch from bodybuilding in mid 2017, it took me quite some time to restore what I consider a truly normal relationship with food and to restore a healthy body image. Now, I eat with a primary focus to fuel my body and I do eat mindfully, but I no longer micro manage every gram or ounce. I follow a 90/10 rule. 90% of my weekly meals are what I consider “clean, healthy” planned meals while 10% may be off plan—I save these 10% for social occasions or weekends. I eat 5 meals a day, so that’s 35 meals per week, meaning up to 3.5 might be off plan. I’m not advocating blowing every weekend out because that will derail your goals, but I do advocate that there’s room for life balance. Life balance is something I was not good at maintaining for my 3-4 years of bodybuilding. I turned down countless opportunities to spend time with family and friends and spent many social and family dinner occasions eating out of containers containing my bodybuilding approved foods that were measured and weighed exactly to the ounce. Relationships were not a priority and quality time is something you can’t get back. It’s not a sport that you can easily juggle life with. If you can, then huge kudos to you. Some manage much better than others, but these are the dark sides that no one talks about. Then there’s long term health to talk about. I’m not getting any younger...no one is, but I feel that sport and fitness should contribute to longevity and health...I had to consider health and longevity in regards to this sport when my labs came back looking dismal 6 months after my last bodybuilding show. I see a preventive cardiologist due to my extensive family of heart disease and she honestly told me that the extremes required in bodybuilding (drastic body fat cuts followed by regains in weight cycled again and again with hormone levels that are up and down) might not be in my best interests considering my family history. I couldn’t ignore this. If I’m going to be a proponent of health and wellness as a trainer for my local gym where I absolutely love helping others and if I want to live my longest, healthiest, happiest life, then I can’t do something that contradicts all of that. What good is it to be shredded on the outside and look like a perfect physical specimen of fitness if you’re wrecked on the inside? I knew I needed to step away from the stage and focus solely on training apart from competing or I needed to find another competitive outlet that wouldn’t lead to negative health impacts. At the end of it all, I had to weigh all the pros and cons and I had to make a decision as I stood at the fork in the proverbial road.
All of that being said, I am not bashing this sport. I love bodybuilding and I’m thankful for my experiences in bodybuilding. I will tell you this, I can thank that sport for building a mental fortitude, tenacity, will power and discipline that is unshakable. I wouldn’t be who I am today without it. The mental tenacity and internal strength I built within that sport has carried over into so many other areas of my life. If I could go back and do it all again, would I? Yes! Much in life has a risk vs. reward ratio. There is always something to give up and there is always something to lose. You just have to determine what’s worth risking vs. gaining. I determined that for me personally, I would cut my losses and take my gains towards a new direction. I was seeking an avenue that would allow me to satisfy my competitive thirst, give me something to train for and yet leave room for life balance. Guess what, I found it!
Powerlifting...a new road. Like I alluded too, you can’t have it all. I do have days where I miss the shreds, muscle definition and crazy vascularity I had when I was bodybuilding lean, but I didn’t have the strength I have now when I was bodybuilding lean. I’m comfortable in my skin now and I’m embracing strength over aesthetics. It’s still important to me to maintain an athletic level of conditioning, but I’m less focused on pure aesthetics in favor of growing stronger. I think bodybuilding built a nice base and platform for me to jump into powerlifting. I came into it with a descent base level of muscle and strength and now I’m just building upon it. How are they different? Well first, how are they similar? Both require discipline, will power and fortitude. You won’t get anywhere without dedicating yourself to your training. You can’t skip training days because you don’t feel like training. You can’t sandbag your workouts. You must fuel your body with quality nutrition. That’s important in both sports. A car wouldn’t run efficiently on poor fuel and neither will your body perform at its best on poor fuel. While some people undergo weight cuts to make certain weight classes for powerlifting, it’s not required and it’s not as drastic as what’s required to be bodybuilding competition lean. For my first powerlifting meet, I simply entered the weight class at my current weight. I made no weight manipulations...I simply focused on fueling for performance. I do not need to undergo the extremes I underwent nor experience the weight fluctuations I did in bodybuilding. Don’t get me wrong, people do go to extremes in the sport of powerlifting as well, but you don’t have to. I’m choosing not to. I want to keep my health as a priority, no matter my chosen sport.
Peaking for bodybuilding vs. peaking for powerlifting are two very different animals. On the bodybuilding stage, you look like an incredible, chiseled specimen of muscle, but on the inside, your body is at its weakest, most depleted state. On the powerlifting platform, you are at your strongest and you will probably set personal lifting records. The camaraderie vibe of powerlifting is incredible. It’s not a me vs. you atmosphere. It’s truly more of a you vs. you sport and that’s what I love because that’s what I’m about. No one is sizing up their competition. Instead, you’re helping each other warm up, chalking each other’s backs and psyching each other up. I just did my first powerlifting meet and it felt like home. There were no feelings of, “I’m glad I did it, but I’m glad it’s over”, instead, I walked away saying, “I’m so glad I did it and I can’t wait to do it again!” You just know when you belong and I felt that sense of belonging. I plan to continue on within this sport.
One thing I do miss about bodybuilding is the training style and chasing that crazy muscle pump. Powerlifting and bodybuilding training are similar yet different. Bench, squats, and deadlifts are key ingredients in both, but volume and intensity differ as well as accessory exercise focus. I love the volume and pump of a good bodybuilding workout, yet I love the crazy intensity of lifting truly heavy weight in powerlifting training. So, I’ll do both. I’ll cycle out blocks of bodybuilding style hypertrophy training with blocks of powerlifting style strength training. The training in both sports are my favorite aspects of both sports. It’s great that in this respect, I can have my cake and eat it too, to a degree.
In conclusion, I’ve traveled both roads. There are merits and drawbacks to both depending on what goals are most important to you. I’m thankful for my experiences in both sports. Both build tremendous character and both help you realize what you’re truly capable of when you put your mind to it. Both help you break beyond your comfort zones and self imposed limits. I think for those of us standing in the crossroads of these sports, you can do one or you can do both, but some of us are better suited for one or the other. You can be good at both, but to me being better suited for one or the other isn’t about necessarily being good at it. It’s being at your best while you’re doing it. I think I had great potential in the sport of bodybuilding as a physique athlete, but if I’m honest with myself, I just wasn’t at my personal best in all capacities of my life while I was doing it. With powerlifting, I think I have potential and I feel that I can also reach that potential while being at my absolute best in all other facets of my life. I’m thankful for both. I love both. But...standing at two roads diverged in a yellow wood, I know which road I will travel...powerlifting.
I guess at heart, I’ll forever be a powerlifting bodybuilder or am I a bodybuilding powerlifter...?
Thanks for reading...here’s what my journey has taught me so far: go where you grow. No matter your goals or your endeavors, seek to be the best version of you. You can do anything you set your mind to...but no matter what that is, it will take action, commitment and perseverance. We have one life to live...live it well...my goal is to live my longest, strongest, healthiest, happiest life possible and to make some difference while I’m here.
Happy travels to you...no matter the road you find yourself on, journey well and have faith in your journey...life is a constant journey of growing and refining who we are and every experience shapes us.