Think “bodybuilding”, and what comes immediately to mind? Well developed muscles, ultra low body fat levels and an appealing symmetrical build? Or perhaps narcissism, ego and an overabundance of drug use? If you asked 100 people in the fitness industry their thoughts on the “sport” of amateur or professional bodybuilding, you’d receive a huge variety of answers. Some people love it and see it as a way of sculpting the ideal physique through proper, intelligent training, strict diet, and discipline and dedication. For these people bodybuilding is a chance to improve themselves on not only a physical level, but also on an intellectual and emotional level. Others though, see bodybuilding as an activity for those with inferiority complexes. For those who want to show off their bloated, “fake” muscles and strut around with their lats spread wide and skin tight t-shirts, for those who crave attention and who train for the shallowest of reasons. For these people bodybuilding is nothing but a circus sideshow.
The reality is though; bodybuilding is what you make it. In the early to mid 20th century bodybuilders, before the days of rampant pharmaceutical drug use, there were “strongmen” who performed Vaudevillian type shows to demonstrate their feats of strength. Whether it was lifting a number of grown men on a platform or pulling a railroad car, these performers had real functional strength. They definitely looked the part, with well developed muscles and impressive overall physiques, but they were entertainers as well and would use their strength as a means to wow an audience, rather than simply posing in small trunks on a well lit stage.
The title of this piece, “Functional Bodybuilding”, refers to the days when strength was just as important, if not more important, than looks. That bodybuilding simply meant “building your body” through heavy lifting and physical activity, and the physique that resulted was a by-product of the work you put in, and wasn’t the goal in and of itself. There are still ways to achieve a “functional” build or physique; it’s just that people have abandoned these methods because they were deemed “old-fashioned” or “traditional.” Replaced by high-tech, scientifically backed research, today’s training methods are seen as superior. The old way gets pushed aside in the name of progress, as is so often the case. This is unfortunate for those who are really looking for results because some of the simplest and least complex training methods have achieved the greatest results.
The physiques of old-time strongmen were impressive, but you’d never see an individual with bloated muscles who could barley move because of their size. Often, the look was more dense and sinewy, rather than freakishly big. So, how did the old-timers achieve their results considering they were often much smaller in overall size than modern day bodybuilders, but much stronger pound for pound? The answer is fourfold.
Number one is exercise and the types of movements performed in their workout routines. Back in the day lifters would perform all kinds of moves that modern day fitness buffs wouldn’t have a clue about: the crucifix, the two hands anyhow and Turkish Get-Ups. They would perform dozens of overhead movements such as cleans and presses (one hand and two hand), snatches, swings, bent presses and floor presses and all varieties of off-the-ground lifts like deadlifts, hacklifts and finger lifts. These are the type of movements that would rarely find their way into modern gyms. But they worked the body and muscles in much different ways than many of the exercises you’d see today.
Number two is how the exercises were performed. Generally, the idea of 3 sets of 10 didn’t mean much to the old-timers. This type of training is good for overall health and some muscular development, but for building strong muscles nothing was better than low reps and heavy weights. By low reps I mean five and below and often singles. By sticking to lower reps and higher weights lifters would not necessarily build the mass that you see currently with the crop of bodybuilders featured in glossy magazines, but pound for pound they would be much stronger. Some well known routines include 5×5, 5,4,3,2,1, 10×3 or several singles with increasing weight.
Number three are the tools of the trade. One of the things that stands out about strongmen of old was their enormous grip strength. It was common for training sessions to include thick handled barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells. They lifted heavy, awkward objects like barrels filled with water, anvils, people on platforms, nothing was off limits, but the type of exercise performed were always incorporated all the major muscles at once. There were rarely any isolation movements such as side lateral raises or bicep curls performed as they really didn’t contribute to overall strength development.
Finally, number four is diet. Looking back on the diets of the old-time lifters is an interesting exercise as there were none of the “scientifically engineered” food products that are available today. They just ate food. However, of interest is that many of the old-time strongmen were European, so their diets consisted of sometimes different fare, but mostly they ate just a lot of good, healthy food. Diets included eggs, meat, porridge, vegetables, salads, sweet fruits, puddings, tea, fish, butter, cheese and beer. Although in today’s world butter, cheese and beer are not considered ideal foods for muscle and strength building, I might suggest that despite their “bad” reputations that their virtue comes from the fact that they are unprocessed, as many of our foods are today. Some food for thought.
The old-timers knew what they were doing and got strong because of it. Training was an art to them and not a science. If you’re looking to get bigger and stronger, then it might be worth looking back rather than forward.