Experts weigh in on the various forms of training
A common misconception heard among people who participate in different weightlifting activities is that they are all one in the same.
If you talk to Olympic lifters, they’ll tell you Olympic lifting is the way to go. If you talk to bodybuilders, they’ll say that their sport is the best.
Understanding the differences between bodybuilding and Olympic lifting is the first step in understanding the impact they have on individuals. The difficulty lies in sorting out the benefits and consequences that come with each sport. Most importantly, it is understanding what’s best for your body.
Bodybuilding is the aesthetic-driven fitness lifestyle centered on weight training, diet, and culminating with competitions. The most aesthetically pleasing individual wins. Olympic lifting, on the other hand, does not take any form of aesthetics into account. Olympic lifting can be seen on the international stage – specifically in the Summer Olympics – and is rooted in fundamental technique and athleticism.
Experts weigh in
According to several Olympic lifters, the common misconception is that their sport requires a grueling diet coupled with an intense training regimen – mirroring that of a bodybuilder.
Photo by Danielle Harder
Meanwhile, bodybuilders say their sport is deluged with misconceptions as well — the main one being that bodybuilding pushes the body to unreasonable levels of exertion.
Physique and fitness competitions in North America have grown substantially, with different classes and even numerous federations emerging.
Robert Sano is the head judge for the Alberta Bodybuilding Association (ABBA). Sano, who’s been around the sport for nearly 20 years, filled us in on the bodybuilding lifestyle.
“Bodybuilding is purely about muscular development and how big individuals are,” Sano says.
“And, for women [figure] criteria is not only muscle size, but also your overall appearance: your beauty, poise, and a number of other things.”
Compared to Olympic lifting, bodybuilding has the more stringent requirements set out by trainers. Bodybuilders have to be mindful of what they eat, what they drink and how much time is spent training. Sano recalls his experience when he was a competitor.
“When I was going through it, I would spend my evenings making all my meals, weighing them, putting them in containers and then when I got up, I had my containers and I would take them everywhere I went,” Sano remembers.
“It really is a time commitment. If you’re training twice a day, and you’re eating six times a day and then you’re spending a couple hours preparing the food – it’s a lot of time and discipline.”
The best practice for these programs requires meal preparation and attention to diet. However, understanding what your body needs throughout training is a key to success in competition and beyond.
A more moderate approach
Nadine Dumas is a transformation trainer and former figure competitor who designs programs for clients wanting to compete or live a healthy lifestyle. Dumas’s program focuses not only on diet and training but also on managing stress levels, sleeping habits and home life. Compared to many other trainers in the industry, Dumas’s method is a rarity.
“I take time to listen and understand my clients,” says Dumas.
She says the weeks leading up to competition are now more complex than ever before. She notes different trainers use different techniques for clients to bring out their best. Dumas describes the routine of starvation and exercise rituals in the weeks leading up to an event as “old school.” That said, she is quick to acknowledge that the old-school bodybuilding techniques are still used today because they work. She insists her approach is more about understanding what her clients’ goals are, and to achieve those goals without extreme methods.
One of these “old school” rituals is depletion, which helps make a bodybuilder’s muscles look bloated. Usually, within five days of a competition, a bodybuilder will stop eating any form of carbohydrates. Then, two or three days before the show when the body is starved of carbs, the bodybuilder starts to ingest a high-carb diet. The result is the body’s muscles soak up the sudden carb intake, and the muscles suddenly appear bigger.
Dumas doesn’t practice depletion because she says there is a tough rebound for most competitors. These rebounds typically result in weight gain or increased stress and depression, which make the off-season more difficult.
“I don’t do anything extreme,” Dumas says.
“I don’t take your water out, I don’t remove your carbs or sodium. It’s just not what I do. I don’t believe in it.”
Dumas says that she can have her clients ready for a show if they just listen to what she says. Each week she talks with the client about weight, sleep habits, water consumption and life stress, and adjusts the plan accordingly to keep them on track within a five to 10 pound range. She says her approach is “very hands-on” and that’s why she works almost 80-plus hours per week.
The period leading up to competition is called “peak week.” It’s the period that receives the most stigmatization in regards to training requirements. Long-time bodybuilder Sano explains some of the techniques used in this period are not for the faint of heart.
“Bodybuilding’s interesting because when you prepare for a competition, you’re actually doing things that aren’t necessarily viewed as being healthy. You’re doing things to make your body look a certain way that might not be healthy,” Sano says.
“What we’ve found is that over the years when athletes and competitors aren’t educated or haven’t had the luxury of getting good training or haven’t had exposure to someone who has been able to guide them, it’s possible that they get themselves into a little bit of trouble doing the wrong things.”
One of the troubles Sano has seen includes a body state of ketosis, which is a condition when glycogen stores in the liver have run out. The body goes from a carbohydrate-burning mode into a fat-burning one. However, bodybuilders typically have a very low amount of body fat, limiting the source of excess energy in the body.
Choices and transition to new practices
Curtis Howden, a fitness director at a major gym, made the uncommon transition from training as a bodybuilder to other weightlifting activities – specifically, Olympic lifting.
“I don’t like to train people to do bodybuilding shows, because I want people to enjoy how their bodies work, what they’re doing with their bodies, and what they’re eating – the idea I want to get across is ‘live well all the time,’” says Howden.
Olympic lifting is one of the oldest sports. It is recognized at an international level and has a following all over the world. Places like Canada, the United States, Britain, Japan, and most of Eastern Europe have large followings in the sport.
An Olympic lift is when an athlete attempts a maximum-weight single lift of a barbell loaded with weighted plates. The lift consists of three individual movements: a snatch, clean and jerk. An athlete must hold the lift in order for it to count. In competition an athlete is allowed three attempts for each lift.
Howden says he liked bodybuilding when he first got into it because he was a small kid and the sport made him bigger. It improved his self-confidence and he found a love for fitness. With a background in teaching, the transition into personal training was easy.
Photo by Danielle Harder
However, Howden’s experience with bodybuilding changed when he injured his back in a car accident.
“When I was bodybuilding I weighed about 190 pounds, but when I started lifting I started losing weight and stayed leaner. But it’s more usable muscle – when I started lifting I was able to do what I want,” says Howden, who is currently an elite Olympic lifting competitor in Alberta.
Howden belongs to the Peak Power Olympic lifting club, along with fifteen other athletes.
Mike Souster, M.Sc. in Exercise Physiology and director of Peak Power Sport Development in Calgary, trains most of his athletes using weight and resistance training. The prominent movement used by Souster is the Olympic lift for its whole body benefits.
“There are a number of different reasons [to use Olympic lifting]. If you would have asked me that 10 years ago I would say strictly performance outcomes. It increases strength; it increases power; it increases explosiveness,” says Souster.
“Now, we primarily use it with our athletes as an injury prevention method and then if you get a performance factor out of it, great.”
Body aesthetics versus body function
Like Howden, Olympic lifter Iris Rutano, who also trains at Peak Power, made the transition out of bodybuilding, but for different reasons.
Rutano got into bodybuilding for reasons that were purely aesthetic. Aesthetics is the end result of the training for a bodybuilding competition. The winner of a bodybuilding show is an individual with balanced body symmetry and overall stage poise. Unlike men, women are required to have hair and makeup professionally done as well. But, Rutano says these reasons were destructive for her.
“Bodybuilding made me too self-conscious,” she recalls.
“I started to obsess about what I looked like and I felt guilty about my diet.”
While Rutano says she liked some aspects of training for bodybuilding, she says the weight training was her favourite.
“I like how you don’t have to worry about how you look with Olympic lifting,” Rutano says. “It’s goal oriented and you don’t get too down on yourself.”
Howden and Rutano say they also prefer the more flexible diet that comes with Olympic lifting. However, they both agree their sport requires a balanced diet that includes carbs.
Athletes like Howden and Rutano – who compete in lifting – feel as though they get a healthy training method, without the additional stressors that come with such a demanding schedule.
“When people know I lift, and see me eating pasta, they always say ‘Oh my God, aren’t you supposed to be eating salad and turkey?’ I’m like, ‘No. I would die!’” laughs Rutano.
What to do in the gym
There is a vast fitness industry offering healthy lifestyles and training methods, but like anything, embarking on a new exercise regime requires some research. Whether you explore bodybuilding or Olympic lifting, experts we spoke to argued it’s important to be diligent.
“I wish people knew more about who was giving them advice,” says exercise physiologist Mike Souster.
“If you look at our industry — I wish I could call it a profession — but we are not professionals, not everyone in the industry is professional,” Souster says.
“The biggest thing is when people are seeking advice on exercise, that they’re not going to their muscle and fitness magazine, not going to their personal training gyms — where people have weekend courses and are prescribing exercises, but are really seeking out the people with theoretical and applied background in exercise.”
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